About that water affordability study
in The Guardian...
The Guardian recently published a big story on water utility affordability in the United States. The headline was shocking: “Millions of Americans Can't Afford Water, as Bills Rise 80% in a Decade,” and “Analysis of U.S. cities shows emergency on affordability of running water amid COVID-19 pandemic.” The story was based on a study that The Guardian commissioned from Boston-area attorney Roger Colton. Colton’s report—which The Guardian called “the first nationwide research of its kind”* —was the basis for the story’s claims.
The Colton report sets out to do three things:
1) “examine whether the affordability of water is common in the U.S. today”;
2) examine whether “water affordability has changed in recent years;” and
3) “examine the extent to which… reasonable projections of water rate increases will affect water affordability in the near future.”
Put simply, the report aims to measure the level of water affordability in the U.S., past affordability trends, and projected future affordability.
Unfortunately, the Colton report is deeply flawed. Not just flawed in some narrow, technical sense; it’s flawed in ways that grossly misrepresent the state of water affordability in the U.S. and point to the wrong approaches to addressing the issue.
I really didn’t want to write this post. It’s heartening when mainstream journalists pay attention to the oft-neglect water sector, especially on matters of affordability, so I hate to be negative about it. I'm also painfully aware of Brandolini’s Law, and any time spent counteracting bad research is time not spent on my own research.
But over the past month I’ve fielded several inquiries about The Guardian article asking whether the Colton report is valid. The short answer is no.
The long answer requires wading into the tall methodological grass. So grab your weed eater and follow me.
Although The Guardian article’s claims are national in scope, the underlying analysis is limited to twelve cities. The dozen were not selected at random, nor are they the twelve largest. Rather, they were selected by Guardian staff, supposedly “to provide a diversity of geographic regions… population sizes… and poverty.” All inferences from the Colton report come from this hand-picked, non-representative sample of systems that collectively serve a little more than 2% of the U.S. population.
But the Colton study’s deepest problems are about measurement, not sampling. Answering the questions that the study raises requires four things:
a) prices for water service in the United States
b) household resources available to pay for water
c) projected future prices and resources
d) defining affordability
You can think of those as the numerator, the denominator, the forecast, and the judgment. All of them flawed in ways that compound and confound.
A study of water and sewer affordability should start with the price of water and sewer service, right? Strangely, the Colton study didn’t collect any rates data or calculate prices. Instead, Colton got price data from Circle of Blue’s annual reports on water prices in 30 U.S. cities. Circle of Blue calculates prices at three benchmark volumes, representing demand for a family of four at 50 gallons per capita per day (gpcd), 100 gpcd, and 150 gpcd. That works out to roughly 6,000, 12,000, and 18,000 gallons per month. Nationally, residential indoor water demand averages around 50-60 gpcd and has been falling steadily for the past twenty years. This indoor demand represents basic needs for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. That’s the main public policy concern for affordability—from a public health standpoint we don’t really care about the affordability of lawn watering or car washing.
But the Colton report used Circle of Blue’s 12,000 gallon monthly price as the basis for its numerator. So The Guardian’s startling graphs reflect the prices for for very high volumes of water.
Next Colton used the 12,000 gallon monthly price to “derive estimated bills given average household sizes for each Census Tract,” according to a footnote on page 6. How Colton derived the prices is a complete mystery; he never explains the procedure, and the footnote is the only mention of how he calculated prices.** A simple table of monthly prices is nowhere in the 88-page report.†
Claims about the affordability of anything implies some relationship between costs and resources. Colton’s sole measure of resource affordability is the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).*** The FPL’s quirky origin story is fascinating—it’s based on 1962 food costs—and the problems with FPL are well-documented in voluminous research. FPL It remains a touchstone in policy discussions nonetheless, mainly because it’s familiar and easily available from the US Census Bureau.
The main problem with FPL for purposes of assessing water and sewer affordability is that it’s insensitive to local costs of living. FPLS also a one-size-fits-all number national number (hence, “federal”): whether you live in pricey San Francisco or cheap Buffalo, the denominator is the same. Home energy, health care, taxes, and especially housing varies wildly across the country, but FPL is insensitive to those costs. Efforts like United Way’s ALICE are aimed at providing a more realistic assessment of cost of living by accounting for that variation.
Colton’s study projected affordability through 2030, which involved forecasting both numerators (price) and denominators (FPL). Once again, the report is vague about how it made those projections. A footnote on p.33 indicates that Colton used inflation rates from a 2017 U.S. Department of Energy’s report, which calculated 2008-2016 increases in water/sewer prices for selected U.S. cities based on average volumetric rate. It’s not clear whether Colton used city-specific projections for his twelve cities, or a 4.71% annual inflation rate, which a footnote in a DOE study says was the “national average annual price increase for water and sewerage maintenance” from 1996-2016. It’s impossible to know exactly how Colton projected prices because price projections never appear in the report. To project the denominator, Colton uses 2010-2018 increase in FPL and assumes that the same growth will continue through 2030.
It appears likely that Colton used straightline projection to forecast an already-inflated numerator using with either an eight- or twenty-year retrospective rate of change (it’s not clear which), either nationally or regionally (again not clear). He projected the FPL denominator using a different eight years of national FPL escalation.
All of this culminates in a declarations of how many people or what percentage of the population suffers from “unaffordable” water. Those conclusions fuel The Guardian headlines, but require a binary definition of what is affordable. So how did the Colton report define affordability?
“In assessing whether a water bill was ‘affordable,’ the base level of affordability was set at 4% of income,” says the report on (p.8). That 4% threshold is the main definition of affordability in both the Colton report and The Guardian stories. The Colton report goes on to set “Affordable Burdens” for various income ranges.
Where did these affordability burden thresholds come from?
Colton made them up.
No poll, no Blue-Ribbon Committee, no philosophical inquiry on the meaning of affordability, no analysis of economic tradeoffs. They’re just arbitrary numbers. Every claim about the nation’s water affordability crisis and most of the scary graphs in The Guardian articles boil down to these thresholds. They’re based on nothing.
Does any of this matter? Shouldn’t we just be happy that mainstream publications like The Guardian and Consumer Reports are paying attention to water affordability? Who cares if the methodological details are a bit dodgy, if the overall point—that water prices are rising faster than poor folks’ incomes—is generally fair?
There are at least three big reasons we should care about assessments that are so egregiously inaccurate. First, this study grossly misstates the scope and nature of the problem. It’s good to draw attention, but bad measurement can lead to the wrong inferences about what’s wrong and how to fix it.
The Colton report’s treatment of Austin, Texas is a great example of what’s so pernicious about poor measurement. The Guardian screams that water bills in the Texas capital increased 154% from 2010-2018, and will be unaffordable for 26% of all Austin residents by 2030. The naïve reader could be forgiven for thinking that Austin Water executives are mustache-twirling villains trying to squeeze money out of poor folks. But remember that Colton’s calculations are based 100 gpcd of demand—far higher than basic indoor needs. Austin Water employs a progressive rate structure that’s actually designed to protect affordability for basic needs and curb inefficiently high water use--and the big price increases start at 11,000 gallons monthly. Here’s the Circle of Blue plot of Austin’s water rates from 2010-2018:
At the more reasonable 50 gpcd, Austin’s monthly water prices increased an average of $2.28 annually from 2010-2018—still an increase, to be sure, but not quite the rolling disaster The Guardian describes. Meanwhile, Colton’s 100 gpcd assumption makes Philadelphia’s regressive, declining block rates look relatively affordable, even as the City of Brotherly Love sticks low-volume customers with higher prices than Austin's. Austin’s progressive pricing is exactly the kind of thing that we ought to encourage to help affordability! Bad measurement leads to bad inferences about rate design.
Second, the arbitrary affordability thresholds that create sensational headlines preempt public debate over what affordability really means. Understanding the burdens and economic tradeoffs that low-income households face is critical to tackling the affordability challenge. But what exactly constitutes affordable water ought to be a matter of community values, not an analyst’s arbitrary judgment.
Finally, the (literally) incredible claims in The Guardian undermine legitimate efforts to assess and address the water affordability challenge. Studies that emphasize impact over accuracy risk achieving neither. Over time, slipshod studies can cause officials and the public to become cynical and dismiss an issue as overblown and ideological (see, for example, political discourse on COVID-19 prevention or climate change).
Water affordability is too important to allow to suffer that fate. Important issues demand responsible research.
*Apparently The Guardian missed this study (2015), this study (2017), this study (2018), this study (2019), and this study (2020). Each was peer-reviewed, nationwide in scope, and included far more utilities than the Colton report.
**The prices of water and sewer service are strangely absent from the Colton report. The actual prices of water/sewer service never appear in the 88-page report.
†I’m guessing that Colton did something like multiply 12,000 gallon price to the ratio of average census tract household size and Circle of Blue’s assumed 4-person household. But that’s pure speculation.
for a federal low-income water bill assistance program
The ink is barely dry on the $2 trillion coronavirus response law, but there are rumblings that a another relief bill will be at the top of the agenda when Congress reconvenes later this month. The latest noises out of Speaker Pelosi’s office indicate that the next bill will focus on immediate relief for families, small businesses, health systems, and local governments.
When it comes to household water affordability relief, the perennial favorite proposal is a federal means-tested assistance program for low-income families modeled after the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). A $1.5 billion LIHEAP-style relief program for water was part of the House proposal for the last COVID-19 relief bill, but it was cut from the final bill and never enacted. The proposal is likely to be resurrected in the next bill.
Over the past week I’ve had several conversations with utility executives, policy experts, and government leaders about how Congress might best provide water relief in this ongoing and rapidly-moving pandemic. This post summarizes thoughts that have emerged from those conversations, and explain why I’m sympathetic but lukewarm on the idea of a federal LIHEAP-style program for water in this moment of crisis.
Redistributive programs come in two basic flavors: means-tested and entitlements.* Means-tested programs provide benefits to individuals and households who demonstrate need and whose resources (income, assets) fall below specific thresholds. People must apply for these benefits, and government bureaucrats evaluate applications to see that they meet program rules. Procedures for auditing and appeals accompany these processes. Those who receive benefits must reapply periodically in order to maintain eligibility. Benefits decline or disappear as incomes grow. Familiar means-tested assistance programs include TANF (“welfare”), SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Section 8 housing, and LIHEAP.
Entitlement programs provide public benefits to qualifying individuals and households regardless of their need or resources—rich, middle-class, and poor households all may receive assistance. People are not required to demonstrate need or report income and assets to government agencies to get the benefits. K-12 education is a great example at the state/local level. School districts don’t require families to demonstrate financial need before enrolling their children, and millions of wealthy and middle-class kids attend school at the public expense across the country. Medicare and Social Security pensions are the two biggest federal examples: rich or poor, the government provides these programs whether or not their recipients “need” them.
It should come as little surprise that means-tested programs often carry a social stigma and entitlement programs are perennially popular.
LIHEAP for water?
Many local utilities provide some kind of means-tested assistance. With 50,000 community water systems operating across the country, these programs vary widely in design and administration.** No statewide water assistance programs exist, although California is building one. There is no federal low-income household assistance program for water or sewer bills. The closest analog is LIHEAP.
A LIHEAP-style water program is a fine idea in theory: it targets the needy population and helps pay for an essential but often expensive service. The program is familiar to the community advocacy crowd, and a network of state and local social service organizations already exists to help administer the program. But there are at least four big reasons to worry about federal LIHEAP-for-water as a cornerstone of affordability policy.
First, the extreme fragmentation of the water sector makes managing water bill assistance administratively costly in ways that it isn’t for energy. LIHEAP coordinates with the 3,200 electrical utilities and 1,400 gas utilities across the United States. There are 50,000 community water systems, and roughly 40,000 of those are very small, serving fewer than 3,300 people and employing just a handful of staff. Affordability is often most dire in these very small utilities in rural communities. Billing systems in these lightly-staffed utilities are often primitive and poorly-suited to coordinate with social service agencies. Making a LIHEAP-type program work for water will take months and significant investments in administrative systems and organizational capacity on the utility-side.
Second, like all means-tested programs, LIHEAP puts an administrative burden on the very people that it seeks to help. Learning about the program, applying, demonstrating eligibility, ensuring receipt, appealing decisions, and reapplying are time-consuming and sometimes humiliating processes. These costs may be especially significant for people with low literacy or limited English proficiency. Potentially eligible people may forego benefits if the application process is too burdensome, if they perceive a social stigma associated with public assistance, or if they do not trust government.
Third, forty years of experience with LIHEAP demonstrates the limits of the program. Historically, LIHEAP has reached an average of just 16% of eligible households. That’s not 16% of all households, that’s 16% of the population that qualifies for the program. The all-time high-water mark for LIHEAP outreach came during the 2009-2010 recession response, when the program helped 22% of eligible households. In other words, at its very best, LIHEAP failed to reach 78% of the people who needed it.
Finally, it is unclear that a LIHEAP-style program would address the immediate need to stop water shutoffs and reconnect every household during a public health crisis. Even assuming the most optimistic administrative scenario, LIHEAP-style assistance will take several weeks or months to work its way from the U.S. Treasury to state governments to social service organizations and finally into water billing systems. After all that, the program’s impact on shutoffs and reconnections will still depend on local practices.
I don’t hate the idea of federal low-income assistance for water. A LIHEAP-style program would surely help many people and could be an important part of a systemic strategy to improve the American water sector. But such a program would do little to alleviate the immediate COVID-19 crisis and could blunt political momentum for more comprehensive and meaningful reform.
Last week I blogged about how the federal government could move swiftly to help keep water and sewer services flowing everywhere during the COVID-19 crisis. My idea is a one-time conditional, formulaic grant program to support water utilities that agree to end residential shutoffs, restore service universally, forgive outstanding penalties, and structure prices to meet affordability standards. It’s an unorthodox and admittedly blunt instrument, designed to tackle a short-term crisis as quickly as possible, with the lowest management costs and least administrative burden on families. Sustainable solutions for the water sector will require more fundamental reforms to the way that we govern, finance, and manage these critical systems after the pandemic has passed.
*Tax expenditures are also redistributive, but I’m trying to keep this post short so I’m leaving them aside.
**To my knowledge, there has never been a systematic study of water assistance program effectiveness over a larger number of utilities.
How the federal government might end shutoffs & keep water flowing during the COVID-19 crisis
The COVID-19 crisis has escalated America’s water and sewer affordability challenge into a full-blown health emergency. Many low-income households struggle to pay for these essential services in the best of times, and the specter of shutoffs for non-payment now threatens to worsen the pandemic. It’s hard to wash hands, cook at home, and maintain adequate sanitation without water service.
In response to the fast-moving crisis, scores of utilities are suspending shutoffs and restoring service for the duration of the pandemic. That is a prudent move in this emergency, but suspending shutoffs and restoring service carries significant financial risks for utilities and does not fundamentally solve the affordability problem, even in the short-run. An end to shutoffs does not mean an end to high prices, late fees, or penalties. When the crisis passes, many customers will still have outstanding balances running into the thousands of dollars and once again face the threat of shut-offs. Meanwhile, in plenty of places shutoffs continue even as COVID-19 rages.
Federal water bill relief?
Last week Congress passed a monumental $2 trillion economic rescue package in response to the COVID-19 crisis sweeping the country. During the helter-skelter Capitol Hill negotiations over the COVID-19 bill, House members proposed $1.5 billion in water assistance relief for low-income households. Modeled after LIHEAP, the federal low-income energy assistance program, the proposal would have provided financial assistance to income-qualified households to help pay for water bills through existing LIHEAP administrative processes. The proposal didn’t make it into the bill that finally reached President Trump’s desk.
Although the water bill assistance would surely have helped many, it would likely have made little difference in the big picture. For starters, while $1.5 billion is a lot of money, means-tested assistance programs are costly to administer and burdensome for customers who need help. This sort of relief can help, but will take time to work its way through administrative processes and into consumers’ accounts to prevent shutoffs. Even at their best, means-tested programs help a small fraction of the eligible population—historically LIHEAP has reached only about 16% of those eligible for assistance. Complicating matters is the extreme fragmentation of the U.S. water sector, with 50,000 mostly small water systems operating across the country. Some of the poorest Americans live in small communities where utilities’ and social service organizations have limited capacity to administer assistance. The need for immediate relief in the face of a pandemic demands faster, farther-reaching action.
Bigger, bolder, faster action*
So what might work better? I’ve long argued that pricing, not assistance programs, is the best way to tackle water affordability. With the pandemic upon us and a massive, emergency need for universal in-home water and sanitation, it’s worth considering a similarly massive, emergency financial response. Here’s an outline of a scheme that could quickly end shutoffs and maximize short-term affordability relief with the lowest management cost to utilities and zero administrative burdens on customers.
The federal government should provide formulaic, conditional grants directly to water utilities. Grants would be awarded as a percentage of each utility’s budgeted 2020 annual rate revenue, with the percentage equal to the community’s poverty rate. For example, Seattle Public Utilities’ 2020 budget calls for $205 million in water revenue and about 12% of its population lives in poverty, so its grant would be $24.6 million. Detroit’s budgeted water rate revenue for 2019-2020 is $131 million and its poverty rate is 33%, so its grant would be $43.2 million.
In exchange for this cash injection, utilities would have to meet simple conditions on pricing and customer administration. Specifically, for the duration of the national COVID-19 pandemic, utilities would:
- End residential shutoffs for non-payment;
- Restore service to all occupied residences currently shut off;
- End residential foreclosures and financial penalties for non-payment or service restoration;
- Forgive all outstanding penalties, fees, and interest on residential water accounts;
- Structure prices so that 6,000 gallons of monthly residential water and sewer service costs less than $58 (eight hours of labor at federal minimum wage).
All community water systems that operate on a fee-for-service basis would qualify, including municipal, tribal, special district, and investor-owned systems. Utilities could use the money to offset revenue losses due to COVID-19 crisis, fund assistance programs, or maintain and improve capital.
Federal funds would be channeled from EPA through existing state Drinking Water Revolving Funds directly into utility coffers, requiring very little additional administrative capacity. There would be no administrative burden at all on customers. Administration for very small systems could be managed through state or county governments.
With annual water utility revenue totaling something like $70 billion and a national poverty rate of 11.8%, the program would end up costing around $8.5 billion dollars. For another $10 billion we could extend the program to cover sewer revenue, too. Until last week, those would seem like absurdly large sums, but they’re rounding errors in the $2 trillion-dollar package that Congress just approved.
Emergency & aftermath
To be clear, this isn’t a carefully considered, meticulously modeled plan—it’s an idea meant to get water flowing immediately in response to an urgent need. These are big, blunt policy instruments, but the proposal outlined here could be introduced on Monday, signed into law by Wednesday, and water service restored in communities across the country by Friday. In a pandemic every moment matters.
Lasting, sustainable solutions for the water sector will require more fundamental reforms to the way that we govern, finance, and manage these critical systems. I hope that once the COVID-19 storm fades, a renewed commitment to improving the American water sector is one of its silver linings.
*Thanks to Wendi Wilkes for prompting and helping me think this through via Twitter. She deserves a share of the credit if you like this idea, but no blame if you hate it.