In Lowndes County, Alabama, thousands of people live with raw sewage in their yards or near lagoons of human waste. Only 20 percent of the county’s residents have access to municipal sewers, leaving them responsible for maintaining their own septic systems. The soil in the former cotton-producing region is made of clay, which doesn’t drain well, and above-ground septic systems can cost up to $30,000—an impossible sum for many residents, 27 percent of whom live below the poverty line. Between 40 and 90 percent of homes in the county have failing systems or none at all. Recently, researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine found evidence in residents of intestinal parasites, including hookworm, a tiny, four-fanged nematode that spreads from human waste to the soil and back again to the human body through the skin, particularly bare feet.
Lowndes County is one of several areas highlighted in a new report from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee titled “The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States.” The report documents the impact of rising water costs and inadequate infrastructure, which are putting millions of people at risk for shutoffs, illness, foreclosure, and even of losing their children, as lack of running water can be considered child neglect in 21 states. Those affected are disproportionately poor people of color, because of historic underinvestment in those communities. “US water and sewer infrastructure, much of which is over 80 years old, has often excluded low-income and minority neighborhoods and towns, Native-American communities, and low-income rural areas,” reads the report.
The cost of water and sanitation services in several major US cities rose more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2015, outstripping the rate of inflation. About 15 percent of all Americans may struggle to pay their water bills, though an exact figure is hard to come by since no government agency collects data on affordability. According to UUSC, water costs account for 5 to 20 percent of what the poorest 20 percent of Americans earn each year. In Seattle, for instance, the 94,000 people who live below the poverty line pay an average of $3,720 a year for water service, or at least 15 percent of their income.
There is no federal statute or policy in the United States that ensures access to water for the poor. Those who can’t afford their utility bills may forgo other necessities like food or medical care, or face shutoffs. “Sadly, a water shutoff is still the standard response to nonpayment,” one of the report’s authors, Patricia Jones, said on a conference call Tuesday. Those shutoffs can be dangerous, as there are rarely protections for children, the elderly, or the disabled. Less than 30 percent of utility services surveyed by the EPA this year offered payment assistance programs. According to the report, “even those programs that do provide a needed discount for low-income consumers tend to be burdensome to enroll in, rely on donated rather than guaranteed funds, or provide assistance for a fixed period.”