By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
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Even in the richest countries, basic water services are not universal. At least 1.1 million people in the US don’t have hot and cold running water in their home and a shower or tub to bathe in, according to a new study.
This “poverty poverty” is highest in cities and most acute in cities like San Francisco with the greatest income inequality.
The lack of sanitary infrastructure is not just limited to the homeless. Katie Meehan, lead author on the study, said this was an important finding.
Although the study found that poverty poverty is closely related to traditional indicators of marginalization such as income and race, Meehan said other factors play a role. Poverty poverty is also linked to housing: tenants and people living in mobile homes are more likely to lack full plumbing services than homeowners.
Meehan said that focusing on these structural issues, where there are legacies of discrimination, is one way to redefine the problem of water access. Rather than looking at building more pipes or increasing supply as a technical matter, Meehan prefers to ask why the pipes were not initially expanded to specific areas.
“This brings poor people’s attention to the institutions that produce poverty,” Meehan, senior lecturer in human geography at King’s College London, told Circle of Blue.
The study, published Nov. 2 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recorded the country’s challenges in accessing water in broad but differentiated gaps. It found that 73 percent of people live in metropolitan areas without a full installation. Almost half live in the 50 largest cities in the country. Households headed by a black person were 35 percent more likely to have incomplete plumbing than white households. Tenants in major cities were 61 percent more likely to have incomplete plumbing than homeowners. In neighborhoods with higher income inequality, the likelihood of plumbing was higher.
The high number of city dwellers without full plumbing is an interesting finding that contradicts the typical representation that plumbing deficiencies are most common in rural areas, Meehan said.
Although New York and Los Angeles had the largest number of people living without a complete installation, San Francisco had the highest population under these circumstances. Portland, Milwaukee, and San Antonio also had high relative numbers of poverty poverty.
Sera Young is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Health at Northwestern University and focuses on household water insecurity. Young, who was not involved in the study, praised the research to debunk the idea that inadequate plumbing is primarily a rural problem.
“Water security is a global concern, and here in the US we’re not immune,” Young wrote in an email to Circle of Blue. “The 1.1 million people living in poverty in the US are likely not just an underestimate, the numbers have likely gotten worse since 2018.”
Meehan agreed that the numbers are most likely an undercount and the results are the “low end” for those who lack plumbing. The data for the analysis comes from the American Community Survey, a questionnaire administered annually by the US Census Bureau and sent to households. Data from 2013 to 2017 were used in the study. When it comes to sanitation, running hot and cold water as well as a shower or bathtub for bathing are currently queried. At the request of Congress, the Census Bureau stopped asking if homes had toilets in 2016.
Stephen Gasteyer, associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University who was not involved in the study, said it would be helpful to fill an information gap: estimating the number of people in the United States who are lacking water and sanitation.
Gasteyer, who studies access to water, contributed to a separate report published last year that looked at not only access to water but also toilet facilities. This report, using previous census data that included the toilet question, estimated that 2 million people in the US do not have these services.
These types of numerical ratings are just a start, Gasteyer said. The next step is to investigate why the numbers are high in certain areas and not in others. One of the weaknesses of the census data is that it is not clear why a person claims to have no plumbing services. Is it because your water has been turned off for several months because of unpaid bills? Or is it because there is no pipe connection to your house? Or do they live on the street but have a postal address?
“If we want to fix the problem, we have to understand what’s behind the data,” said Gasteyer. “We need to do case studies to understand the mechanisms, not just the numbers.”
Gasteyer said the study’s finding that tenants are more likely to have poor plumbing is consistent with his experience working on field work to access water in Mississippi. Activists there told him it was difficult for tenants to hold landlords accountable for poor service.
Meehan is similarly fascinated by the mechanisms by which poverty alleviation occurs. The census data provides a comprehensive overview but does not explain the process for a specific city.
“Does it tell you how the engine works? No, ”said Meehan. “That requires additional research.”
Read more about access to water at the Great Lakes Now:
Lack of utility data obscures customer water debt problems
Millions of Americans are plagued by water debt at a time of COVID-19
Minority communities are questioning the EPA’s election boost
Michigan governor publishes a $ 500 million water infrastructure plan
Questions and Answers from Policy Experts: Continue to advocate for safe drinking water with elected officials
Featured image: Detroit house that turned off water in 2014. (Photo by J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue)