Plumbing poverty is the exploration of infrastructure, space, and social inequality.

 
Navajo Nation, Arizona. Credit: arbyreed

Navajo Nation, Arizona. Credit: arbyreed

 

The Problem

Household water insecurity--the lack of safe, reliable, and sufficient water for a thriving life--is a global threat to human health and development. Many people refuse to believe this problem exists in the United States of America, one of the world's wealthiest countries.

 

“We've never had running water for as long as I remember. I usually haul water about three times a week for ourselves, for our livestock, and for our planting.”

— Verna Yazzie, navajo nation member, arizona

 
 

But it does. According to 2016 Census estimates, the aggregate number of households without a plumbed connection would be equivalent to the nation's fifth largest city--a population size comparable to Phoenix, Arizona. This discovery led us to ask a bigger question: Who and where are the plumbing poor?

In our groundbreaking study, to be published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, we explore the social geography of plumbing poverty in America: who suffers from incomplete water provision, and where. Drawing on spatial and sociodemographic analysis of census microdata, we identify hot spots of plumbing poverty, which are disproportionately experienced by communities of color. We map plumbing poverty in America.

To fix the problem, we must first understand the geography of household water insecurity. In our Annals article, we argue that rigorous analysis of space and social difference must be prioritized in the development of cross-comparable metrics and measurement tools. We cannot stand by, idle. We must plumb poverty.

 
Proportion of households without complete plumbing. Source: U.S. Census 2016.

Proportion of households without complete plumbing. Source: U.S. Census 2016.

 

Who and Where?

In the United States, water infrastructure provision is falsely assumed to be ‘universal’ in its coverage. Our findings suggest that secure water remains an incomplete promise for communities of color—and not just in rural communities or hard-to-reach areas.

 

Across all households in the United States, accounting for income and housing type,

3.7

Native American households are 3.7 times more likely to lack complete plumbing than households that do not identify as Indigenous or Black.

1.2

Black households are 1.2 times more likely to lack complete plumbing than households that do not identify as Black or Native American.

1.2

Hispanic households are 1.2 times more likely to lack complete plumbing than non-Hispanic households.

 
“El Rio es Para la Gente,” a mural by students at Manzo Elementary School, Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Katie Meehan

“El Rio es Para la Gente,” a mural by students at Manzo Elementary School, Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Katie Meehan

 

What Next?

We're just getting started. Plumbing poverty is understood as a three-legged stool: first, as a material and infrastructural condition produced by social relations that vary through space; second, as a methodology that operationalizes the spatial exploration of social inequality; and third, as a mission to (re)plumb the social and infrastructural fabric of communities in more just and equitable ways.

Our project seeks to plumb poverty across the Americas--to dig into the roots of its production, to reveal its spatial and social nature, to gauge its impacts on human livelihoods and well-being, and to experiment with its erasure. We work across the Americas: at smaller-scale sites in Mexico City and Arizona (USA), to hemisphere-scale analysis across the continent.