Do minorities get ‘hosed’ on water bill?

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — White flight from urban centers often means minority residents are left to pay to maintain aging water and sewer systems, a new study finds.

This “structural inequality” is not necessarily a product of racism, but does mean that racial minorities pay systematically more than white people for basic municipal services.

“This study demonstrates a disturbing racial effect to the cost of basic services,” says Stephen Gasteyer, assistant professor of sociology at Michigan State University. “People of color have the fewest opportunities to leave urban centers and are left to pay for the crumbling legacy of a bygone economic era.”


For the study, reported in the journal Environmental Practice, researchers analyzed Census data on self-reported water and sewer costs in Michigan and found that urban residents actually pay more than rural residents, a finding that refutes conventional wisdom.

Perhaps more importantly, water and sewer services cost more in areas with greater proportions of racial minorities.

Detroit is the “poster child” for this problem, Gasteyer says. The city has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950, and the water and sewer infrastructure is as much as a century old in some areas. Billions of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the aging lines every year, and the entire system has been under federal oversight since 1977 for wastewater violations.

“A fair proportion of Detroit’s large low-income population cannot afford the burden of rate increases meant to offset infrastructure repairs, leading to tens of thousands of customers getting their water turned off every year,” Gasteyer says.

Water and sewer lines are aging throughout the country. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed to repair deteriorating systems over the next 20 years.

Paying for those upgrades likely will be a major issue in shrinking cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Birmingham, Ala., Gasteyer says.

“Everything is wearing out, and we are going to have to grapple with how we pay for these so-called liquid assets that need to be upgraded. At the same time, we need to be cognizant of who may be paying an unsustainable burden as those rates go up.”

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