UUSC: The crisis of unaffordable water in the U.S.

Inability to pay a water bill can lead to shutoffs, collateral impacts ranging from home evictions and tax liens to foreclosure

waterBOSTON, MA- Between 2010 and 2015, water and wastewater costs rose 41 per cent, nearly five times the rate of inflation over that same time period according to the The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) in a report released today.

“Water is essential for life, but universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation has not been achieved in the United States,” said Amber Moulton, the researcher in UUSC’s Programs, Advocacy, and Action Department, and co-author of the report.

The report argues that real affordability programs can and must be established to ensure that all people in the United States have access to needed water and sanitation services.

“Lower income Americans and those facing economic crises struggle to pay rising water and sanitation costs resulting in shutoffs and other negative consequences,” said Moulton.

The problem begins with whether there is any even coming out of the tap and how much it costs.

The EPA uses median income to determine affordability when evaluating compliance measures, not whether the cost of services is actually affordable to low-income households.

This means that the wealthiest Americans’ water service costs are often considered a negligible part of households’ budgets.

Many people even consider it cheap. Meanwhile, low-income individuals and families are often left paying more.

“The lack of data we have on the number of Americans struggling to afford basic water services is criminal,” said Roger Colton, an economist and principal of Fisher, Sheehan & Colton. “What we do know, however, is that the number is large and that rethinking the way that costs are calculated will not only benefit consumers, but utilities who will see more people paying bills on time under a more equitable system.”

Right now, cities and utilities not only lose when consumers can’t afford to pay their bills; they actually miss out on potential revenue that could be gained through affordable rate structures.

Still, the consequences are dire for consumers and their families: inability to pay a water bill can lead to shutoffs, collateral impacts ranging from home evictions and tax liens to foreclosure and the loss of one’s home.

In 21 states, a parent’s inability to provide running water in the home can be considered “child neglect” and contribute to a child being removed from a home.

Furthermore, an inability to gain or maintain access to affordable, clean drinking water also has detrimental impacts on one’s health and hygiene.

waterFor example, lower-income children without adequate sanitation facilities in Alabama, have contracted hookworm, a tropical parasite that is no longer commonly found in the United States.

“It makes no sense that in the richest nation in the world, rural poor children living along the historic Selma to Montgomery March trail are forced to live in third world conditions playing amongst raw sewage,” said Catherine Flowers, Director of Environmental Justice at the Center for Earth Ethics in Alabama.

“Millions of Americans still lack consistent access to safe sources or adequate sanitation due to historic discrimination, ailing and inadequate infrastructure, pollution, and other factors,” said Alice Jennings, a civil and human rights attorney who is currently representing plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit related to water shut-offs in Detroit.

UUSC outlined a set of recommended policy reforms at the local, state, and federal levels.

  • Banning water shutoffs for nonpayment when customers do not have the ability to pay. At a minimum, mandate protections against water shutoffs for low-income children (under age 18), individuals over 65 years old, persons with disabilities, pregnant and lactating women, and persons with chronic and catastrophic illness
  • Requiring regulatory agencies to study and work to remedy the impact of unregulated pollution on the cost of water and sanitation for customers
  • Prioritizing and targeting water and sanitation funding to those who do not have it and vulnerable populations first, followed by other investments as needed
  • Adopting the human right to water and sanitation in domestic law with clear enforcement mechanisms and remedies.

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