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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Parched Single-Parent Neighborhoods

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Sociologists have long known that single mothers struggle to put food on the table. Now a new study warns that before long many of these single mothers will be struggling to put drinking water in the cups on that table. Written by researchers at Stony Brook University and Michigan State University, this new study identifies areas in the United States most economically vulnerable in the newly emerging market of costly water.  Their analysis identifies areas filled with large numbers of female-headed households as those most at risk.  

Stressing that “basic access to clear water is critical,” the authors of the new study identify “the affordability of water access for people around the globe” as an issue of vital importance. Earlier research, cited by these authors, has shown that “approximately 60% of the population in low-income countries could not afford water priced at full cost recovery rates,” making government subsidies imperative. And though the water picture is less dire in affluent countries, the researchers believe “water poverty” already afflicts sizable areas in the United States, and they anticipate worse problems ahead.

Looking specifically at the United States, the Stony Brook and Michigan State scholars remark, “While water rates remain comparatively affordable for many U.S. households, this trend will not continue in the future.” Even now, the researchers note that in Detroit, municipal officials require “mass shutoffs” of water services to households delinquent in paying for those services and that in Philadelphia more than 227,000 households—accounting for fully 40% of the city’s water accounts—are now delinquent. Indicative of the kind of pressures that push households into delinquency on their water accounts, the water rates in Atlanta and Seattle are now so high that the typical family of four must pay more than $300 per month for water services.

To identify which urban areas in the United States are feeling adverse economic pressures from water rates, the authors of the new study analyze nationwide data collected in 2015 by the American Water Works Association (AWWA). These data reveal to the researchers the location of households that are most likely to suffer from “water poverty,” defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the economic status of households spending more than 4.5% of their income on water services.  

A dismayingly high number of American households fall within the definition of “water poverty”: the researchers calculate that “11.9% of all households in the continental United States have incomes below the threshold of $32,000. Households with incomes below this threshold allocate more than 4.5% of their income to pay for water services.”

Allocating this much for water, explain the researchers, constitutes “an issue for low-income and households in poverty who barely make enough money to pay for basic living expenses.” Aside from the difficulty it presents for individual households, water poverty is also a growing “concern for individual utility providers servicing a large proportion of customers with a financial inability to pay for water services.”

Predictably, some areas are far more vulnerable to water poverty than others. As the researchers analyze their data, they find that the households that now struggle to pay for water services or that may soon so struggle if water rates continue to rise are “clustered in pockets of water poverty within counties.” Analyzing census-tract data, the researchers conclude that the tracts that have become such pockets of water poverty are “low-income tracts [that] also have higher levels of public assistance income, more receipts of food stamps/[government] assistance, and female sole heads of household” than are found in tracts not suffering from water poverty.

In identifying female-headed households as a population particularly exposed to water poverty, the researchers recognize that they are echoing “an affordability study in France [in 2006 that] highlights that single parent families, particularly female-headed households, . . . are [among those] most at risk for affordability issues” in water services.

But at a time when female-headed households have multiplied on both sides of the Atlantic, the influences exposing such households to the threat of water poverty appear likely to grow more intense. Pointing to “a variety of pressures ranging from climate change, to sanitation and water quality, to infrastructure upgrades” that are now “placing increasing strain on water prices,” the researchers fear “a perilous future for water utilities and their customers.” Because “water prices are anticipated to increase four times current levels” in the coming decades, the researchers predict that “the percentage of U.S. households who will find water bills unaffordable could triple from 11.9% to 35.6%.” The researchers warn of “cascading economic impacts associated with widespread [water-]affordability issues,” as water providers find themselves with “fewer customers over which to spread the large fixed costs of water service” and are therefore compelled to charge “higher water rates to recover the costs of services that go unpaid by lower-income households.”

Of course, water poverty affects more than just female-headed households. But this new study clearly identifies such households as an especially vulnerable population. With the number of these households still climbing in the United States and elsewhere, a distressing number of children in these households will likely find it all too hard to quench their thirst in the years ahead.

(Elizabeth A. Mack and Sarah Wrase, “A Burgeoning Crisis? A Nationwide Assessment of the Geography of Water Affordability in the United States,” PLOS ONE 12.1 [2017]: e0169488, Web.)