Expert Commentary

Racial disparities in access to running water: 5 studies to know

We highlight five academic studies to help journalists better understand links between race and access to indoor running water.

running water
(Melissa Jeany, Unsplash)

Clean water piped into the home is a given for most Americans. But piped, running water isn’t universal, and people of color are disproportionately more likely than white Americans to lack piped water, finds new research in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

Householders of color in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. are 34% more likely to lack piped water compared with white, non-Hispanic householders, the researchers find. In all, the authors estimate 1.1 million people in the U.S. lack what the U.S. Census Bureau calls “complete plumbing” with nearly three-quarters of them living in cities and suburbs.

The Census Bureau considers a household to have complete plumbing if it has running hot and cold water with a bathtub or shower used only by people living in the dwelling. People without a piped connection to water may still be able to access clean water by purchasing purified water from a store or retrieving water from other sources, such as a stream.

“It is hard for many people to imagine that communities in the modern-day U.S. lack such a basic life necessity, but for those of us who work at the crux of infrastructure provision and social and spatial inequality, this story — the story of systemic inequality — is an old story,” lead author Katie Meehan, a senior lecturer in human geography at King’s College London, told Journalist’s Resource by email.

The authors further find that renters are 61% more likely to lack complete plumbing compared with those who own their homes. They note that the Census Bureau often undercounts renters, people without homes and people of color, “demographics that are disproportionately plumbing poor.”

The Census Bureau has acknowledged that those groups are undercounted. Given census undercounting, the authors estimate the real number of people in the U.S. that lack complete plumbing is likely closer to 2 million — roughly the size of the Kansas City metro area, for comparison.

On Sept. 4 the Centers for Disease Control and Protection put into effect a moratorium on evictions because “housing stability helps protect public health because homelessness increases the likelihood of individuals moving into congregate settings, such as homeless shelters, which then puts individuals at higher risk to COVID-19,” the agency wrote in its order.

The American Medical Association in a recent legal brief explained the eviction moratorium is helping renters maintain physical distancing, self-quarantining and hand hygiene. With the CDC eviction moratorium set to end Dec. 31, it’s not just housing at stake for millions of Americans who rent and are already at greater risk of lacking complete plumbing — it’s the ability for people to wash their hands at home during a pandemic.

Read on to learn more about the new PNAS paper, plus four other academic studies to help journalists better understand links between race and access to indoor running water.

Geographies of Insecure Water Access and the Housing-Water Nexus in U.S. Cities
Katie Meehan, Jason R. Jurjevich, Nicholas Chun and Justin Sherrill. Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, November 2020.

The authors analyze Census Bureau survey data covering 2013 to 2017 and estimate that more than 1 million people in the U.S. lack complete plumbing in their homes.

Householders of color in the 50 largest metro areas are 34% more likely to lack complete plumbing compared with white, non-Hispanic households, the authors find. Householders of color make up about 39% of households in those areas, but represent 53% of households that lack complete plumbing, they find.

Metro areas with the highest percentages of households lacking complete plumbing include: San Francisco; Portland; Milwaukee; San Antonio; Austin; Cleveland; Los Angeles; Memphis; New Orleans; and New York. Metro areas generally encompass core cities and their surrounding suburbs.

The authors note that the Census Bureau often undercounts renters, people without homes and people of color, “demographics that are disproportionately plumbing poor.” The Census Bureau has acknowledged that those groups are undercounted. The authors note that, given undercounts, the actual number of people in the U.S. who lack complete plumbing is likely closer to 2 million.

“Without universal water access, efforts to limit the spread of infectious diseases — such as COVID-19 — will undermine global health and benefit certain populations over others,” the authors write.

Exposing the Myths of Household Water Insecurity in the Global North: A Critical Review
Katie Meehan, et. al. WIREs Water, October 2020.

The authors dispel the myth of “modern water,” the idea that water access is universal and secure in high-income countries.

“Recent research suggests that household water access is far from universal in high‐income countries,” they write. Based on their research review on gaps in universal water access in high-income countries they identify four contributing factors.

The first is the complicated nature of water systems in the U.S., where there are tens of thousands of public and private organizations that distribute water. Smaller systems are more likely to fall short in providing water to all households in their areas, the authors write. They note that some areas, notably in some Black communities in North Carolina, racial groups were historically and systematically excluded from political control over water access.

The second factor has to do with precarious housing driven by wealth gaps among racial groups. Simply put, people with unconventional housing arrangements are more likely to lack indoor water. The third contributing factor is citizenship status and the fourth has to do with “institutionalized structures of marginalization,” such as the forced displacement of Indigenous people.

The authors go on to explore several other myths having to do with water in high-income countries, including the myth that water is always clean, safe and affordable.

“Myths are more than a collection of misleading statistics or gaps in understanding: as shared beliefs, myths create and sustain norms and perceptions of secure water, including whose water experiences are deemed hegemonic or universal, and whose experiences are made invisible,” the authors write.

Plumbing Poverty: Mapping Hot Spots of Racial and Geographic Inequality in U.S. Household Water Insecurity
Shiloh Deitz and Katie Meehan. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, March 2019.

The authors introduce the idea of “plumbing poverty” as a way to understand water insecurity in the U.S. Analyzing a trove of census data, they identify hot spots for plumbing poverty, where households lack complete plumbing at rates higher than average.

After adjusting for income, housing type and other factors, the authors find householders who are American Indians are 3.7 times more likely to lack complete plumbing compared with householders who don’t identify as American Indian. Black and Hispanic households are also more likely to be plumbing poor than white, non-Hispanic households, they find.

Geographic hotspots include communities in Alaska, the Four Corners region of the Southwest and along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the upper Midwest, the Northeast — particularly northern Maine and New Hampshire — the Allegheny region in Pennsylvania and Appalachia in West Virginia.

“Plumbing poverty is not a simple artifact of income, rurality, or housing type; infrastructure provision is clearly racialized and historically produced in the United States,” the authors conclude.

The Drinking Water Disparities Framework: On the Origins and Persistence of Inequities in Exposure
Carolina Balazs and Isha Ray. American Journal of Public Health, April 2014.

The authors spent five years — 2005 to 2010 — interviewing residents and water regulators in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Groundwater pumped from wells in the valley has been chronically laden with arsenic, a carcinogen, above acceptable levels set by the World Health Organization.

The authors identify examples of local water policies designed to “explicitly deprive communities of adequate drinking water resources.” The 1973 Tulare County General Plan, for example, says that so-called “non-viable communities would, as a consequence of withholding major public facilities such as sewer and water systems, enter a process of long term, natural decline as residents depart for improved opportunities in nearby communities.”

“These decisions, in conjunction with regulatory failures, a lack of community resources to mitigate contamination, and political disenfranchisement of local residents, help explain the origins of environmental injustice in the context of drinking water,” the authors conclude.

Racial Disparities in Access to Community Water Supply Service in Wake County, North Carolina
Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, Nicholas DeFelice, Daniel Sebastian and Hannah Leker. American Journal of Public Health, December 2014.

The authors perform the first statistical analysis of how historically Black communities in North Carolina have been systematically denied municipal drinking water. Using property tax and census data for Wake County, the most populated county in the state, they find that every 10% increase in the Black population within a census block increases by about 4% the chance that people will lack municipal water service.

The authors point to a “legacy of racial segregation,” in which cities in North Carolina are allowed planning and development powers in “extra-territorial jurisdictions” up to three miles beyond city boundaries. Black communities were often excluded from cities but included in extra-territorial jurisdictions “over which majority white town councils retained control — a practice known as ‘racial underbounding,’” they write.

“This research reveals a disparity in the physical environment — access to treated municipal drinking water — that potentially could contribute to observed racial disparities in health in Wake County,” the authors conclude.

For more on water safety issues, check out lead in drinking water: key facts and reporting tips. Plus, research on race and water access in metro areas and five tips for investigating stories on water access, affordability and safety.

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