It seems like Detroit is always in the news for something. From its crime rates to its bankruptcy filing last year, there is never a lack of situations in Detroit that the popular media can write about. The ongoing water shutoff debacle is no exception.
On Friday of last week, more than 300 protesters marched through Detroit’s downtown streets to protest water shutoffs according to The New York Times. Protesters chanted “Fight, fight; water is a human right,” as they marched with campaign signs in tow.
These protests come after thousands of Detroit residents have had their water service shut off, or threatened to have their water shut off by Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
A recent press release by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department states that shut off notices began to be sent to local residents a couple months ago. In perhaps an effort to make it seem like there’s a big to-do about nothing, they say:
“In May, for example, DWSD sent out 46,000 shut off notices. Of those, only 4,531 customers – less than 10 percent of the total – had their water service shut off for any period of time. Within 24 hours, 60 percent of the affected customers paid their accounts in full and had their service immediately restored. Forty percent of the remaining customers had their service restored within 48 hours.”
Based off of that: Detroit shut off the water of 4,531 people for no longer than three days total in May.
Many news sources suggest that the proliferation of media attention on the issue of water shutoffs is unwarranted. An editorial in The Detroit News states: “This is not the wholesale humanitarian crisis that a United Nation’s expert claimed last week.” and that for “those who can’t pay, the water department has a variety of ways to help, from payment plans to bill subsidies.”
Regardless of whether it’s a couple dozen people who are without water service, or whether it’s a couple thousand, the precariousness of water service in Detroit is palpable. The media is either condemning Detroit officials for their inability to value ‘human rights’ over making ends meet, or is chastising citizens for their ‘refusal’ to pay their water bill despite having the resources to.
Taking the conflicting media coverage into account, who is to blame for the water being shut off: both parties or neither?
According to information published by the United States Census Bureau, 38.1% of Detroit residents have a family income that is below the poverty level, which is more than double compared to Michigan overall. Poverty, as poverty is apt to do, can make paying one’s bills extremely difficult. An article endorsed by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that “fully half of the water customers in Detroit have stopped paying their bills” as of July 1st.
In addition—as with many Rust Belt cities—Detroit residents are not only more economically challenged than usual, they are also disproportionately black. Water access is being cut off to the people that are the least able to fight back against it.
The Detroit Water Department has discovered “79 accounts in the city for illegal water usage in a three-day span earlier this month, resulting in $21,750 in fees.” In many ways, it’s a fine for being poor: Can’t pay? Well we’ll fine you till you do! Can’t pay? Well too bad!
Some commentators have suggested that Detroit residents have stopped paying because they fear no consequences. In addition, because they fear no consequence, some commentators suggest that the residents of Detroit should get their financial priorities straight. As the overplayed trope goes: poor people are too busy buying smartphones and fancy shoes, when instead they can be getting ahead on their bills.
This may be true; however, people who are poor still buy nice things. As with everything, there are different levels of poverty. That being said, there is no clause in the Handbook of Universal Rules that states that people who live in poverty should not be permitted to own nice things. Poverty forces people to think in the present and the near present. Planning for one’s financial future is an effort that is tenuous at best. In a society where consumerism is so entrenched, we shouldn’t be faulting people for trying to keep up with the social norms by which we judge them.
A lack of access to freshwater undermines years of progress that we have made. A lack of understanding about the way that people in poverty spend their money doesn’t benefit anyone either.
In addition, with the average household income of Detroit being so low, there are undoubtedly people that would have problems with paying their bills. With a myriad of economic troubles in Detroit, it’s not surprising that people are having troubles finding the resources to support themselves.
But while the people shouldn’t be blamed, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shouldn’t be blamed either. Money matters. In the capitalist economy that we live in, one cannot run a city without money. Although city governments and entities are generally different than businesses, at the end of the day, without money, cities will not have what is needed to incentivize people to work, to build infrastructure, and to provide city services.
Detroit is no exception.
With aging infrastructure and increasing human capital demands, costs always seem to be on the rise. However, despite that and it’s annual operating budget of 363 million dollars, “by law, DWSD can only recover the cost for provision of service — it cannot make a profit.”
With bills that need to be paid, the City of Detroit needs to do what it can to ensure that they are running their Water Department in a way that is financially sustainable. Amassing large debts and doing nothing about it is an easy way to run into even more trouble. Placing blame for an issue caused by a number of factors is misguided. With the financial problems that Detroit is already having, it is easy to understand the logic behind their decision to shut people’s water off, even if it does spell immense trouble for an inner-city community that continues to be economically devastated.
We should be trying to identify the causes and solutions to this, starting at the root of the problem—not running around pointing fingers and trying to figure out who’s at fault.
Chapman, Mary M. “Hundreds in Detroit Protest Over Move to Shut Off Water.”The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 18 July 2014. Web. 18 July 2014.
Garner, Curtrise. “DWSD Responds to Misinformation about Water Shut Offs and Suburban Water Rates.” DWSD. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, 24 June 2014. Web. 18 July 2014.
“Detroit(city), Michigan.” State and County QuickFacts. United States Census Bureau, 8 July 2014. Web. 19 July 2014
Guillen, Joe. “Detroit Water Department Finds 79 Customers Stealing Water in Three-day Period.” Detroit Free Press., 13 July 2014. Web. 19 July 2014.