Thursday, September 1, 2016


I am always thinking about water -- not because it's hot outside, or because I forgot to water my plants (yeah, they're dead already), but because I know so many with a lack of it. 

You can spot them easily. Hair looks unwashed; clothes are stained; there's an aura of smell, sure. But mostly they look exhausted. They are, of course, dehydrated, but I'm betting they're equally exasperated and frustrated with a system that seems to work against them.

Like residents of many countries, citizens in the United States pay for water through local public utilities and water companies. In some areas, the charge is minor and most people can pay with just a few falling behind on their bills. In other areas, the charges can be high, and a major proportion of the population falls in arrears. Take Detroit for example. Last year, 1 in 9 city accounts were shut off last year. Over 10%!

I don't know the rate of shut-offs in the Jefferson City area, but I've been seeing enough to make me question our system. Should we provide water to everyone as a free public service?

On our recent trip to Ireland, I asked some of our new friends how their country handled water. Little did I know that water had been a heated argument for the last few years on the Emerald Isle. Until a new law took effect in 2015, water had been provided free to every citizen as a public service. For the last year and a half, however, everyone was having to pay a yearly amount (with a cap based on adults in the household). Water was still relatively cheap by European standards, but the new law has been so contentious that the country has suspended it for a period of nine months to review its practice. The government argued that the fees were needed to pay for a dilapidated system and replace lead pipes. The people said water was a basic right and should be provided to all.

I have to admit, I see a water shut-off as one of the most degrading events a family can suffer, especially when children are in the home. Water is a necessity. How do you reconcile the public need to maintain services through imposed fees with the basic human right of access to clean water? (Interestingly, under the new Irish law, families are never disconnected for a lack of payment on a bill. Rather, debts are tallied and court proceedings initiate only at a minimum debt level of 500 euros, with the legal enforcement being a reduction of payroll or social welfare payments. I've had clients who have been disconnected here for a late payment on a $15 bill.)

I don't know what the solution is. Certainly we could increase local taxes and wrap it into our public system. Because we are such an anti-tax culture, however, I fear that the service would be underfunded and fall into the same disrepair as Irish plumbing. Maybe we should initiate alternative solutions to non-payment like the example above, or create social safety nets that ensure water is provided despite inability to pay.

Or, as is the growing case in our cities, what we really need to do is address some deep-seated systemic problems that prevent even the hard-working families among us from paying for basic necessities: low wages, a lack of affordable housing, and gaps in health insurance coverage. As the Detroit-area CEO of United Way says, it's time to "question[] the American dream, and if we're setting up families to acheive it."

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