As More Americans Struggle to Pay Water Bills, Affordability Solutions Are Past Due

People of color and low-income families are at higher risk of water shut-offs.

People of color and low-income families are at higher risk of water shut-offs. SHUTTERSTOCK

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | With utility shutoff moratoriums expiring, millions of people, particularly people of color and low-income families, are at risk of losing water service.

When Covid-19 brought many parts of our economy to a grinding halt last spring, millions of Americans were thrust into unexpected financial peril. By April, all 50 states and the District of Columbia had unemployment rates that exceeded those of the 2008 economic crisis. Many households were faced with insurmountable debt, food insecurity and imminent utility shutoffs.

In response, multiple state and local governments—though not all—issued emergency moratoriums to prevent providers from shutting off power and water services due to nonpayment. Almost a year later, the novel coronavirus is alive and well, yet most moratoriums have either expired or are about to. Once again, shutoffs loom—with one-third of utility customers in states like Wisconsin behind on their bills.

An Unfair Shake

Although Covid-19 threw the issue of water affordability into sharp relief, it’s not new. Facing mounting expenses related to replacing infrastructure, updating plants and responding to extreme weather events, utility providers have been forced to raise prices over the past decade. In fact, an analysis of a dozen U.S. cities by The Guardian and Consumer Reports showed the cost of water and sewage increased by about 80% from 2010 to 2018.

Unsurprisingly, low-income families are paying an outsized portion of their income for necessities like utilities. Across the United States, water bills were considered nearly universally unaffordable for the most disadvantaged in 2018. And in 11 of the 12 cities analyzed, 100% of the population with incomes below 50% of the federal poverty level lived in communities with unaffordable water.

Research also confirms that people of color are disproportionately affected by shutoffs. Even before the pandemic, Black families earning less than 1.5 times the federal poverty level were twice as likely as white families to experience shutoffs. And a 2018 study determined that two-thirds of Latino utility customers in California lived in ZIP codes with the highest shutoff rates.

In Detroit, where almost 80% of residents are Black, city officials in 2014 launched an extensive shutoff program that has disconnected almost 150,000 households since it began. The United Nations has since condemned the program as a human-rights violation that disproportionately affects Black people.

The pandemic only intensified preexisting water inequity. In a 2020 survey of low-income American households, Black respondents were twice as likely to say that they could not pay their energy bills in April or May.

Finding Future-Focused Solutions

To begin tackling this problem, we must first paint a clearer picture of residents’ needs through enhanced data collection. During the height of Covid-19 lockdowns, we saw nonresidential water usage plummet and residential usage surge because everyone was trapped at home. What kind of account balances were people building up during that time? And as unemployment mounted, at what point did people start falling behind on their bills—and by how much?

We need greater data transparency in order to answer these questions, yet providers aren’t required to disclose this information. Governing bodies and utility commissions would be wise to require more thorough utility tracking and data reporting on overdue bills, shutoffs and repayment plans. And yes, it is possible to do this without compromising citizens’ privacy.

Once we have a better idea of the need, we can begin to propose solutions to the problems with water affordability. It’s important to clarify that water should not be freeIn fact, part of the reason utilities cannot improve infrastructure is that water is so undervalued and underfunded. Someone needs to pay for it, but the burden shouldn’t fall heaviest on low-income households.

States and localities drive over 95% of public spending on water infrastructure annually, so it follows that discussions around waterworks spending and the affordability of service often begin and end at the local level. But federal officials also have a role to play and should provide more coordinated and regional-focused water financing policy direction and increased financial support. States and municipalities petitioning the federal government for assistance is a good start—particularly for customer assistance programs. Those programs promise to help bolster providers’ financial capacity as they expand their affordability efforts.

Water access is a fundamental human right. Such an assertion may not seem radical—until we consider that even before the pandemic and resulting economic crisis, about one-third of U.S. households were already at risk of finding their water bills unaffordable by 2022, putting them at risk of shutoffs. It’s time to enact long-term solutions that protect our most vulnerable citizens and ensure that no one has to choose between food and clean running water.

Chris Shaffner is the senior vice president of the Water and Community Facilities division at CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America by providing loans, leases, export financing and other financial services in all 50 states.

NEXT STORY: Learning From the New Deal—For the Next Recovery

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.