How America’s Hidden Water Poverty is Costing the U.S. Economy Over $8.5 Billion Each Year
The United States has a hidden crisis: over 2.2 million people live without running water or proper sanitation at home. Life without taps and toilets has a tangible economic impact for American families, their communities, and our country. Our team at DigDeep uncovered the real costs of water poverty in Draining: The Economic Impact of America’s Hidden Water Crisis.
Each household without this basic infrastructure loses an average of $15,800 per year in higher healthcare costs, money spent on bottled water, decreased earnings from time lost at work, and even premature death. It’s no surprise that low-income families bear the brunt of these costs. But these economic consequences ripple outwards into their communities and society at large. In aggregate, this ‘water access gap’ costs the American economy an astonishing $8.58 billion each year it remains unaddressed.
Yet there is cause for hope: our report shows that closing the water access gap yields a return on investment of nearly 5 to 1. For every dollar invested in connecting these families to basic water and sanitation, the economy gains $4.65 in societal benefits. The U.S. could unlock $200 billion of economic value over the next 50 years.
What Life Looks Like Inside the ‘Water Access Gap’
This water access gap persists in every U.S. state and territory. Families on the Navajo Nation are forced to drive miles to haul drinking water that they store for weeks, while people in Texas border colonias often spend over a third of their monthly income on unreliable trucked water. Appalachian households without working toilets are forced to flush sewage into nearby streams, causing outbreaks of illness.
Race is the strongest predictor of water and plumbing access. Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack complete plumbing than White households, and African American and Latinx households are nearly twice as likely.
DigDeep analyzed a wide variety of public health and economic data to calculate the national economic price tag:
- Time lost: $846 million, including estimates that working-age adults spend an average of 232 hours per year, and children spend an average of 170 hours per year, collecting water for their homes.
- Physical health: $762 million, including risk of disease, physical injuries from hauling water, and steeper healthcare bills. Annually, the gap causes 219,000 cases of waterborne illness and approximately 610 deaths – the equivalent of two passenger planes falling from the sky yearly.
- Water purchase costs: $291 million, as 40% of these homes rely on bottled water as their primary source of drinking water – resulting in an average household spend of $1,350 per year.
- Mental health: $218 million, since people living without running water are 22% more likely to suffer from mental health conditions, including 71,000 new cases of mental illness per year.
- Additional GDP impacts from lost productivity: $924 million, accounting for lost earnings and productivity due to physical and mental health conditions.
A Path Forward
Unlike many other nations, the United States lacks its own robust Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) sector. We – collectively as government entities, private sector actors, nonprofits, academia, philanthropy, and most importantly, impacted communities – need to come together and harness decades of global WaSH solutions, collect accurate data, and pool resources. With a harmonious, robust domestic WaSH coalition, we can guarantee a tap and toilet in every household across the United States.
While Americans without water need champions at all levels, the federal government must lead the charge to close the water access gap once and for all. DigDeep recommends a few policy priorities to end this crisis:
- Expand and refocus federal and state funding. Appropriate dedicated funds via Congress to close the water gap over the next 10 years. The up-front investment required for new infrastructure is only $18.4 billion, less than Americans spend on ice cream every year.
- Use data to bring visibility to communities. Create an EPA-led Water and Sanitation Needs Working Group to streamline data collection and information on the location and nature of household infrastructure gaps. The federal government should update the Census to add questions to accurately measure affected individuals nationwide.
- Define the water access gap as a crisis. Following our 2015 commitment at the United Nations to ensure safe, sufficient water and sanitation services for every person, Congress should declare the water access gap as a crisis.
- Build a domestic Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) sector. This sector can coordinate nationwide efforts and hold the government accountable to impacted communities using the global WaSH sector as a model. DigDeep has been building this sector via national convenings, and by developing a united coalition of organizations in water and sanitation.
We can live in a world where children and families have permanent access to safe, clean drinking water. DigDeep firmly believes that in coalition with government partners, businesses, and others, this crisis can be solved. Join us by sharing DigDeep’s newest research with your network, donating, or partnering with us in future work.
Kabir Thatte is Director of Policy & Coalitions at DigDeep, the leading WaSH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) organization serving disadvantaged communities in the United States. Kabir previously served for nearly 10 years in key positions across presidential & congressional campaigns, government, philanthropy, and nonprofits.