Story at a glance

  • The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing problems within America’s infrastructure, especially for those from middle- or low-income households.
  • A new analysis finds that running water has become increasingly unaffordable over the last decade.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic — and even before then — public health officials have been encouraging Americans to wash their hands in order to reduce the risk of transmission. More and more Americans, however, have to weigh the risk of infection against their bank accounts.

More than 2 million Americans lack access to running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater services entirely, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Water Alliance, many of whom are residents of tribal lands and reservations. But even those who have access to water are increasingly struggling to pay the bill.  

To determine the extent of water poverty in the United States, The Guardian commissioned an analysis of 12 cities that found the combined price of water and sewage increased by an average of 80 percent between 2010 and 2018. More than two-fifths of residents in some cities live in neighborhoods with unaffordable bills, or those that exceed 4 percent of household income. 


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“More people are in trouble, and the poorest of the poor are in big trouble,” Roger Colton, an economist and lead author of the report, told The Guardian. “The data shows that we’ve got an affordability problem in an overwhelming number of cities nationwide that didn’t exist a decade ago, or even two or three years ago in some cities.”  

The highest increase was in Austin, Texas, where the average annual bill rose by 154 percent, from $566 in 2010 to $1,435 in 2018. But Colton told The Guardian, “It is difficult to argue with a conclusion that New Orleans is in the worst shape of the 12 cities studied.”

In total, almost one-third of all water customers in New Orleans are considered “delinquent” and together owe significantly more than $50 million, according to the study. 


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And the burden of these costs often falls on those who are middle or low income. In 11 of the 12 cities, 100 percent of the population with incomes below 50 percent of the federal poverty level lived in neighborhoods where the water bills were unaffordable, with the 12th city, Fresno, at 99.9 percent, according to the analysis. 

And what happens if you can’t pay? According to a study by Food and Water Watch in 2016, about 1 in 20 homes are disconnected for unpaid bills annually. 

“It feels like nobody cares. We must be the lowest of the low as far as the water company is concerned. We just don’t matter, not even during a pandemic,” Deborah O’Barr, a 62-year-old resident of Tennessee who lives without running water, told the Guardian.


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Published on Jun 24, 2020