Poster Paper: Urban Water Policy in the Rustbelt: Unpacking the Role of Race and Inequality

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sara Hughes, University of Michigan

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has brought renewed attention to the links between race, inequality, and urban water policy and services in U.S. cities. Since 2014 residents of Flint have been exposed to elevated levels of lead and other contaminants in their drinking water. This exposure has been linked to learning delays in children, fetal deaths, and heavy financial burdens for low-income households, leading some to call the crisis the largest environmental justice disaster in U.S. history. Stakeholders, scholars, and other observers have highlighted the role that race and inequality have played in Flint’s experience. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission wrote that “the people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations.” Given the complex relationships between race, inequality, and urban water policy, can we identify how vulnerable other cities in the region are to experiencing a similar crisis?

Flint’s experience provides an opportunity to reexamine our understanding of water policy and services in post-industrial cities and improve our ability to predict or prevent such a crisis from happening again in the future. Municipal water systems are one of the basic service delivery functions of city governments and central to the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of cities. As other cities in the North American Rust Belt struggle with population loss, economic disinvestment, and social inequality (Hackworth 2015, 2016a), water systems and services are likely to be affected. However, very little research has examined systematically the relationships between race, inequality, and urban water services, and therefore we lack theoretical and methodological tools for integrating data in a meaningful way and identifying priority areas and policies for heading off urban water crises in the future.

This paper examines the relationship between economic, social, and political characteristics and water policy outcomes of (1) Safe Drinking Water Act Violations and (2) elevated lead levels for a set of 60 cities with a population greater than 50,000 in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The analysis measures the presence, variation, and configuration of urban water vulnerability in these cities, providing insight into the role of race and inequality and identifying priority areas for local, state, and federal governments for addressing urban water vulnerability in the region.