This past March, urban water systems across the country placed a moratorium on residential water shutoffs. It may have taken the COVID-19 pandemic, but at long last, the negative consequences to the health and well-being of our residents has taken precedence over timely water bill payments.
Throughout human history, civilizations have endeavored to provide safe and plentiful water to all of their citizens. It is a sad fact, however, that there are still many American households struggling daily to access this most basic of human necessities—clean drinking water and sanitation services—even in communities and cities in which the necessary infrastructure is in place and working.
The ugly truth is that in urban and rural America, including on tribal lands, many of the poorest people simply cannot afford to pay their water bills. Manny Teodoro, an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, has reported that in the year 2019, the poorest 20 percent of American households received water/wastewater monthly bills that exceeded, on average, 12 percent of their disposable household income. Some household water bills came to as much as 30 percent of household income. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the cost for water and sewer services should not exceed 4.5 percent of household income.
The primary and sometimes sole recourse a water utility has to coax customers into paying their water bills is to shut off water service to the property. But for a household already living at the edge of its capacity to pay for rent, food, taxes, medicine, clothes, and school supplies, shutting off water supply has consequences beyond the health and sanitation repercussions.
An NAACP Legal Defense Fund study of race and water affordability in America’s cities showed that he collateral consequences of unaffordable water bills may include losing your home, your health, your kids, or your freedom. This idea is reinforced by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which notes the impact of “water debt” on the poor is systemic; over time, water debt compounds poverty, reduces the value of homes and neighborhoods, and jeopardizes housing stability. And since water debt is attached to the property, it is often passed on with the family home, often to relatives who lack the ability to repay this inherited liability.
As my friend and colleague Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization states, “It is not only unimaginable—but unconscionable—to suggest that if you can’t pay for water, you can’t have it.”
This is all not to suggest that U.S. water utilities haven’t been providing significant economic support of their low-income customers. In fact, for most American cities, assistance has long been available for those who need it, through senior citizen discounts, emergency services funds, and grant assistance programs. In Philadelphia alone, for example, over $34 million dollars was made available through customer assistance programs. These programs generally did nothing to help end the cycle of poverty, however, especially since they required the household to become behind in their water bills before support is offered. Until companies and cities can change this assistance model, the cycle will continue.
In July 2017, Philadelphia Water took a giant step to overcome the struggles of its neediest customers. Philadelphia initiated an income-based tier structure for its water tariffs. For households at or below 50 percent of “federal poverty level,” water bills were reduced from an average of near $80 to $12 per month. The goal was to treat all customers with respect and provide a real incentive for them to pay what they could afford to pay. There are some 15,000 households enrolled, which may represent about one-half of all those eligible, out of a total household base of nearly 500,000. Each month, more in-need customers are applying to the program.
Penn, and cities across the U.S., are watching the progress as Philadelphia Water begins to assess the real impact of this change on the utility’s revenues, costs, and tariffs and the impact of this program on at-risk households. For example, are there fewer water shut-offs? Is this helping end the cycle of poverty? Can this tariff system be replicated in other cities and towns across the country?
Water is a human right, but that doesn’t mean that water must be free. It must, however, be affordable, especially for those with little to no income. And an income-based tariff may be the best approach yet to balance revenue needs with affordability because, as Community Legal Services of Philadelphia noted, “A home without running water is no home at all.”
Howard Neukrug is Professor of Practice in Earth and Environmental Science and Executive Director of The Water Center at Penn. He is the former Commissioner and CEO of Philadelphia Water.