Why Race and Inequality Are at the Heart of America's Water Problems


On March 22, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan reintroduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act, a bill to make water service safer and more affordable for all. The introduction of the legislation was particularly timely since March 22 was World Water Day, an annual event that highlights the critical importance of water and the need to preserve it as a common good.

These days, more and more communities struggle to provide adequate drinking and wastewater services. That’s because the federal government used to be one of the most reliable stewards of our public water resources, but over the past forty years, that financial support has dwindled.

Federal Funding Dries Up

On a per capita basis, federal funding has declined 82 percent since its peak in 1977. The federal government spent $76.27 per person on water services in 1977, but by 2014 that support had fallen to $13.68 per person. Water utilities must spend at least $697 billion over the next twenty years to provide safe water and keep waterways clean. Without this support, communities must compensate by raising service rates. But water rates are already unaffordable for nearly 12 percent of households in the U.S., according to one study. In the next five years, one in three households could be unable to afford their water bills. 

Many of us take water for granted, expecting it to always flow from the tap whenever we need it. New analysis released in March by Food & Water Watch is a reminder that this isn’t always the case, and that poor people and communities of color are hit the hardest by our national water funding drought.

Populations Decline; Shutoffs Skyrocket

In 2015, Detroit shut off water service to 24,000 households and Baltimore shut off water service to 8,000 households—mostly in the lowest-income areas of the city. In Philadelphia, where about 40 percent of residents were behind on their water bills in 2015, a number of low-income and African American households have lived for years without running water in their homes. Yes—years. In Detroit, many of these shutoffs were aimed at dismantling African American neighborhoods, according to analysis by We the People of Detroit.

It’s easy for some to write these problems off as a matter of misplaced priorities, but nothing could be further from the truth, or more demeaning, for that matter. Low income households spend a disproportionate amount of their income on water bills. The problem is particularly acute in aging industrial cities where many residents have left, and those that remain not only struggle to find jobs and pay for basic necessities, but they’re also expected to compensate and pick up the tab for increasing water infrastructure upkeep costs. But households living in poverty cannot afford this burden.

In addition to not being able to hydrate, bathe, flush toilets and wash clothing and dishes, losing water service can have tragic consequences. In 21 states, lack of access to water in the home may be considered child neglect, and shutoffs have led to children being taken from their homes. Families should not be torn apart because federal funding for community water systems has dried up.

It’s not just access to water that’s a problem either—low income communities and communities of color disproportionally experience contaminated tap water. We saw this problem most notoriously in Flint, but contaminated drinking water is a problem throughout the country. According to analysis of data from the National Health Examination Surveys from 1988 to 2004, Black children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Indigenous communities are also hit hard by our water infrastructure crisis. Tribal water systems are twice as likely to violate health standards—nearly one in eight tribal public water systems violated a health standard in 2013.

Rural Challenges

Some communities don’t have basic water infrastructure at all. Between 600,000 and 1 million U.S. households lack some or all plumbing facilities. More than 100,000 lack hot running water, and 93,000 don’t have flush toilets. Indigenous communities again experience a large part of this burden. Rural Native American and Alaskan Native populations have the lowest rates of indoor plumbing in the country—between 7.5 percent and twelve percent don’t have piped water systems.

Rural communities face their own set of water challenges, as many rely on wells and septic tanks, which can be very expensive to maintain—often too expensive for low-income families to afford. Failing septic systems can become public health nightmares, even leaking into groundwater supplies, as has been the case in Alabama. A 2003 study found that 40 percent of the state’s septic systems were failing or in need of repair, while 46 percent of household wells in the state were contaminated with bacteria, leaving 340,000 residents at risk of disease.


Everyone needs and deserves adequate wastewater service and access to safe, affordable drinking water. Toxic water and unaffordable bills are infringing on the human rights of low income families and communities of color. This has to stop.

If federal funding continues to dwindle, our national water woes will only grow worse. That’s why the WATER Act is so vital—it establishes a steady, dedicated, sustainable source of federal funding to community water and sewer systems in order to address problems with water service affordability, quality and more. It will also improve the economic prospects of many by creating up to 945,000 new jobs. We can’t count on the current presidential administration, whose plan for our infrastructure will only waste resources on xenophobic border walls or encourage the privatization of these essential resources.

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