17% of U.S. households struggle to afford basic water services, affecting 28.3 million people

A new study by researchers at Duke University has found that 17% of households in 787 communities served by the largest utilities in the United States struggle to afford basic water services.

This equates to 28.3 million people living in households that spend more than one day each month working to pay for water services and sanitation. The study, which was published in the open-access journal PLOS Water, reveals that nearly half the U.S. population lives in the communities covered by the analysis.

The lead author of the study, Lauren Patterson, who is a senior fellow at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, noted that safe and reliable water services are essential for everyone to thrive, but a substantial number of Americans may be finding them difficult to afford. When costs rise faster than incomes, it strains the budgets of a wide swath of U.S. households already struggling to make ends meet, as well as utilities trying to adequately serve their customers.

The analysis also shows that utilities in the United States receive limited federal or state investment to cover the costs of infrastructure, treatment, operations, and maintenance. Instead, they largely rely on fees charged to households and businesses that access their services. While costs have steadily risen for utilities over decades, their customer bases have seen a widening gap between higher- and lower-income households.

The researchers behind the study, in partnership with the Aspen Institute and the Water Policy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute, have been convening a series of discussions with U.S. water leaders to address the economic, environmental, and equity concerns around water affordability. A smaller roundtable group met in late 2021 and early 2022 to develop principles and recommendations to help make water services reasonably accessible for everyone while keeping utilities solvent.

One of the key findings of the roundtable is that “the affordability challenge is inadequately defined and measured.” To address this, the Duke research team set out to conduct their study, which assumed 6,000 gallons of water per month would be enough to meet the basic water needs of an average U.S. household. Water services were defined as affordable if they cost less than 4.6 percent of monthly income, equal to a day’s worth of labor at minimum wage.

The study focused primarily on utility systems that serve more than 100,000 people. When the authors repeated the analysis for systems with fewer than 10,000 people, they found the average customer paid even more each month compared to larger systems, and unaffordability was more pervasive.

As the authors note, the thresholds used in the study are subjective. They developed an interactive data visualization tool that enables users to adjust the definitions of water usage and financial burden. The authors also highlight that the systemic issue of water affordability for U.S. households is not limited to a specific region, nor strictly urban or rural communities.

The study cites myriad factors for the widespread nature of the affordability challenge, including low household incomes, increased regulatory costs, increased energy costs, aging infrastructure, population loss, climate change, and the rising costs of capital associated with finance.

In discussing the policy implications of their analysis, the authors write that utility customer assistance programs and other safety net measures are critical to immediately help households unable to pay their bills. Over the longer term, however, the diverse factors that have led to higher utility costs and income inequality “will require approaches that incorporate finance, governance, equity and span from the local to the state and federal scale.”

The authors suggest that if Congress was able to pass the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 after a nationwide survey showed 14% of households were getting drinking water that didn’t meet basic public health guidelines, then perhaps a similar focus on water affordability is warranted now.

In summary, the study highlights a critical issue that affects a substantial number of Americans,

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.