Where Americans Lack Running Water, Mapped

Photo by David Babayan on Unsplash

  1. Richard Florida
  2. Claire Tran

“Plumbing poverty”—a lack of access to running water, a flush toilet, and an indoor bath or shower—is skewed across racial and socioeconomic lines.

Across the United States, more than 460,000 households, or nearly 1.5 million people, lack a plumbed connection to drinking water or sewers. And the figures are far worse among disadvantaged groups and in certain parts of the country. Roughly 40 percent of Navajo families lack running water at home. Nearly three-quarters of households in an area of northern Arizona that includes five Native reservations lack connected plumbing.

A new study in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers takes a detailed look at the persistence of “plumbing poverty” in the U.S., and the socioeconomic groups and geographic regions most likely to experience it. Researchers Shiloh Deitz and Katie Meehan, geographers at the University of Oregon, define plumbing poverty as the absence of one or more of three elements: hot and cold running water, a flush toilet,and an indoor bathtub or shower. They use detailed micro-data from the U.S. Census Bureau to map plumbing poverty around the country by race, ethnicity, income, housing tenure and type, and geography across PUMAs (a geographic unit that roughly follows county boundaries).

Their findings reveal a few things. For one, plumbing poverty is clearly linked to race and ethnicity:

  • American Indian and Alaskan Native households are 3.7 times more likely to lack complete plumbing than others.
  • Black Americans make up 16.6 percent of plumbing-incomplete households, compared to 12.8 percent of all U.S. households.
  • Hispanics comprise 16.7 percent of plumbing-incomplete households, but just 12.5 percent of all households.

Plumbing poverty also tracks income: Households with incomes twice the PUMA median are 1.5 times more likely to have complete plumbing. Housing tenure and type are factors, too. Renters are about 1.5 times more likely to be plumbing poor than homeowners, and those who live in mobile homes are 2.5 times more likely to be plumbing poor.

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