Sunday, November 26, 2017
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty will visit the United States from December 1 through December 15. In anticipation of this important visit, we will be posting a number of special blog entries highlighting input submitted to the Special Rapporteur in advance of his visit. This blog, written is the first in this series.
by Alicia Cook, Northeastern University School of Law, '18
National water crises such as those in Flint and Detroit, Michigan have drawn international attention to the human right to water, and ongoing issues facing water affordability and accessibility for many Americans across the country. New data drawn from water crises across the country calls into question the U.S.’s ability to meet this basic human right, as well as what obligations cities themselves may have in supporting the human right to water. Statistics also alarmingly reveal that growing barriers to water affordability and accessibility correlate strongly to deeply-entrenched intersections of racial discrimination and poverty. Lower-income communities consistently face greater roadblocks to accessing clean and affordable water services and maintaining such services, while simultaneously shouldering increasing costs of water utilities infrastructure. Limited access to water disproportionately impacts communities of color and poorer neighborhoods, but also perpetuates cyclic barriers of poverty.
Perhaps surprisingly, Boston is now among one of the major cities facing its own crisis regarding the human right to water. Despite its comparatively high level of affluence, Boston continues to see similar correlations between race, poverty, and limited access to affordable water services. The Color of Water, a local, Boston-based NGO, has been at the forefront of Boston’s water issues, and has conducted significant research on the human right to water throughout city. Based on data collected from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC), the Color of Water found that thousands of people are threatened with shutoffs to residential water service in Boston each year, and that lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by such shutoffs. Typically, these shutoffs are due to account delinquency, and lower-income neighborhoods—usually those that are home to larger concentrations of communities of color—are more likely to experience account delinquencies and the subsequent water insecurity that comes with these shutoffs. This effect is even more pronounced in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of multi-family dwellings. Significantly, every 2% increase in people of color in a Boston ward resulted in a 3% increase in shutoff notices in that ward.
In addition to more general correlations between race and low socioeconomic status, these analyses reveal issues of water inaccessibility distinct to Boston. Water bills in Boston are significantly higher than in other U.S. cities, and the price of water is increasing. Data from 2014-2015 alone showed a 5.1% increase in the cost for a family of four using approximately 50 gallons of water, per person per day, although this increase stalled in the last year. While Boston’s average per-capita income may be higher than that of other cities ($35,728 in 2015 dollars), the percentage of low income households is also significantly higher than many areas of the U.S. Statistics over the last several years have noted that more than 17% of households in Boston earn less than $15,000 annually, compared with less than 12% nationally.
The fact that Boston, with a higher average income and significant economic and political resources, continues to struggle to provide universally affordable and accessible water only serves to underscore the deep entrenchment of poverty and racial discrimination across the country. This deep-seated inequality along racial lines, and its consequences for water affordability and accessibility, is even further significant given Boston’s declaration of itself as one of the country’s Human Rights Cities in April 2011. As a designated Human Rights City, Boston commits itself to develop new local practices and policies to promote urban justice, and uphold the principles of democracy, nondiscrimination, and participation regardless of race, sex, cultural background or economic status. Given its designation, and consequent commitment to promoting human rights at the local level, Boston’s deeply-rooted and distinct issues surrounding the intersection of race, poverty, and access to water are notable in the national conversation.
The question then remains as to what next steps the city can take to ensure a decrease in threatened water shutoffs within the poorest neighborhoods. With Boston’s comparatively greater access to financial support for water resources, a significant first step may be as minimal as recognizing the distinct correlation and divide between water affordability and accessibility across city neighborhoods. The Color of Water’s extensive data has already provided the foundation for understanding the existence of this deeply-entrenched problem. Additionally, local advocacy groups must collaborate to push for stronger local legal reforms that will protect citizens’ rights against discriminatory practices in accessing and affording household water services, and ensure participation in the development of anti-discriminatory access plans. Ultimately, Boston is uniquely situated as a city with the available resources and local advocacy power to create significant social change and legal reform regarding the human right to water. Boston must mobilize to recognize its current deficiencies, and utilize its available resources by dedicating its attention to this critical issue.