Plumbing poverty in U.S. cities: A report on gaps and trends in household water access, 2000 to 2017

Katie Meehan*, Jason R. Jurjevich, Alison Griswold, Nicholas M.J.W. Chun, Justin Sherrill

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Book/ReportReport

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Worldwide, an estimated 2 billion people, or 26% of the global population, lack safely managed drinking water services and 3.6 billion (46%) do not have safe access to sanitation. In 2017, nearly 460,000 U.S. households—some 1.1 million people, enough to fill a large city—lacked piped running water in their homes, a state we call “plumbing poverty.” While existing research has documented household water insecurity in the global South, this study aims to understand problems of infrastructural injustice in the places where many would least expect: cities in the United States.

Our research documents emerging trends and persistent gaps in urban water access over the past 20 years, before and after the Great Recession of 2008. Focusing on 15 major metropolitan areas and drawing on analysis of nearly two decades (2000-2017) of Census data, we identify racialized disparities in household water access, compare trends between cities and over time, and point to worsening conditions for urban dwellers, especially renters. To understand the different pathways of water insecurity relative to housing and urban development, we profile three indicative metros: San Francisco, Phoenix, and Milwaukee. Together, these metros exemplify key trajectories of plumbing poverty: (a) San Francisco is a strong example of 'worsening' trends in a dense and relatively wealthy city; (b) Phoenix captures the 'stagnation' of plumbing poverty in a fast-growing Sun Belt city; and (c) Milwaukee, too, reflects the ‘stagnation’ of plumbing poverty but in a deindustrialized Rust Belt context.

Our study finds that plumbing poverty is a social, not technical problem, with roots in unaffordable housing conditions, widening wealth gaps, and racialized inequality in some of the fastest-growing U.S. metros. While some cities have managed to decrease their unplumbed populations over the past two decades, others have made no progress or, worse, seen alarming jumps in the share of people living without piped water access. Many of the worst offenders in terms of plumbing poverty—such as San Francisco, Portland, Austin, Nashville, and Seattle—are also some of the wealthiest and fastest-growing American cities. This research underscores a need for coherent federal policy and significant infrastructure spending to rectify ongoing spatial and social inequalities of water access in U.S. cities.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherKing's College London
Number of pages32
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Sept 2021


  • household water insecurity
  • cities
  • housing
  • water access
  • United States
  • racial capitalism
  • comparative urbanism


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