Between March and late July of 2014, the city of Detroit shut off running water, with little to no warning, to about 17,000 city residents who were behind at least $150, or two months, on their water bills (the average water bill in Detroit is $75 a month). A moratorium on water suspension went into effect at that point due to public pressure, but that moratorium ended on August 25 and more shut offs are expected into the future.
In case you’re curious about whether shutting off people’s water constitutes a violation of human rights, the UN is unambiguous. UN Special Rapporteur on water rights Catarina de Albuquerque insists that “when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” In case you’re curious about how city managers responded to the UN calling them out about denying their citizens basic human rights, Cathy Square, emergency manager of Hamtramck’s water system illuminates us. “Folks have tried to make it into a political story, but I think it’s more about infrastructure and infrastructure maintenance and how that plays into administration of the service,” she says.
Infrastructure needs to be maintained, for sure. What’s weird in this response is that the goal of infrastructure is completely erased. The endgame of urban water service is to get water to people. If you shut that water off, people definitely won’t get any, so the issue can’t be just about infrastructure. Even less logical is Randall Blum, Eastpointe’s finance director’s, pithy and optimistic view of how austerity measures can inspire those who can’t afford water to pay their bills, “[t]hey need that little kick in the pants to get in here and do it.” If money appeared every time someone was literally or figuratively kicked in the pants, this would be a cutting-edge solution, but that’s just not how physics works.
The attitudes revealed by city managers in these statements are based on the assumption that those who fall behind on their bills have the money but won’t pay up, either because they’re spending the money on other things, or because they’re hoarding it so they can swim, Scrooge McDuck-like, in a monstrous pool of cash. It’s not clear. What is clear is that the city’s approach to the water crisis is based on the myth of equal opportunity; the idea that everyone is given the same chances to cover their basic needs and allow for upward economic mobility, but that poor people have chosen (for whatever reason) not to grab hold of the opportunities that rich people have had.
It’s assumed that everyone has the same ability to pay this bill (whatever the source of income). “Choosing” not to pay your water bill carries the same connotations as “choosing” not to be financially successful, in that economic failure carries a taint of personal moral failure. It’s a result of laziness, selfishness, something you need a “kick in the pants” for.
That equal opportunity is a myth is made obvious by the correlations between poverty and race. Leilana Farha, UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, helpfully puts this connection in context, stating that if “these water disconnections disproportionately affect African Americans they may be discriminatory, in violation of treaties the U.S. has ratified.”
The disconnections do, incidentally, disproportionately affect African Americans, since Detroit’s population is greater than 80 percent African American. The Detroit Water Brigade estimates that shut offs will affect about 40 percent of this population. The legacies of segregation in America have created huge urban pockets of people who are strategically and intentionally disadvantaged by limited economic opportunities and then blamed for the crime and social problems that inevitably crop up in places where there is limited economic opportunity.
Farha’s concerns over the shut offs extend to more than just the water itself, since social services has taken children out of homes where water has been suspended, citing inadequate housing. It’s a terrible reminder of how much people get punished for being poor. Here, people are systemically disadvantaged by race, but made individually responsible for the economic positions that result from it.
Rather than see the water crisis as a sign of a community in crisis, city administrators publicized it as the result of individual Detroiters making irresponsible financial decisions. Media statements made by city managers tried to divide the community into those who pay bills and those who shunt that responsibility off onto other people. The concept of responsibility for public utilities played out quite differently outside of administrative offices, however.
“When some Detroit residents don’t pay their bills,” Mayor Mike Duggan says, “those bills have to be paid by other Detroiters.” For managers, this is a problem. For those living in and among neighbours who have had their water suspended, it’s just called the right thing to do.
There have been dozens and dozens of stories about friends, family members, neighbours and complete strangers stepping up to make sure that everybody can meet their basic needs. They’ve paid other people’s bills, turned their own outdoor taps into a community water source and lugged gallons of water to apartments and homes. These are people who are literally picking up the tab because they realize that a) poverty is not a choice and b) helping each other out is the real solution to endemic social problems.
Their efforts have inspired (or maybe shamed? I bet it’s also shamed) the city to adopt more a more compassionate approach to collecting on overdue water bills once the moratorium ends. The Detroit community just taught those who govern it an invaluable lesson in how communities function best—that opportunities might not be equal, but our responsibility to each other is. I wish there was a tax rebate for that.