The ability of low-income families to pay for basic water and sewer services is a subject of increasing concern. Large-scale assessments of affordability across large numbers of American utilities are rare, however, and are limited by poor measurement and biased samples. The present study uses improved metrics and data from an original, representative sample of water and sewer utilities in the United States to calculate the affordability of basic single-family residential water and sewer service for low-income households. Results indicate that low-income households must spend an average of 9.7% of their disposable income and/or work 9.5 h at minimum wage to pay for basic monthly water and sewer service but also that these values vary considerably across the country. Community-level demographic and economic data are used to identify some correlates of affordability. Region, utility size, and local income inequality emerge as strong correlates of affordability.
Affordability is a household-level phenomenon: if a low-income family in Portland is struggling to pay its bills, the fact that they would be better off in Pasadena and worse off in Providence is irrelevant. Rather than comparing their own affordability metrics with other communities’, utility leaders should seek to maintain affordability levels that are consistent with their own organizational goals and values.
Teodoro, Manuel P. 2019. “Water and Sewer Affordability in the United States,” AWWA Water Science 1(2): e1129.