A close-up of a sink
Fred Greaves/Reuters

“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.

Shiloh Deitz & Katie Meehan, Annals of the American Association of Geographers

Plumbing poverty varies widely by geography. It “is neither spatially nor socially random in the United States,” Deitz and Meehan write. “Rather, plumbing incompleteness is spatially clustered in certain regions of the country.”

As the map above shows, it is highly concentrated in parts of Alaska, the Southwest, the Upper Midwest, and the Northeast, especially northern Maine and New Hampshire, and the Allegheny and Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The next map shows the hot spots for plumbing poverty by key socioeconomic factors such as race and housing. Black Americans are more likely to experience high levels of plumbing poverty in the Deep South as well as Washington and Oregon. Hispanics are more likely to in the border areas of Texas, but also in New York State and Utah. American Indian and Alaskan Native households are more likely to be plumbing-poor in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.

For renters, plumbing-poverty hot spots include Hawaii and parts of California, Utah, and Wyoming, and for residents of mobile homes, the Mid-Atlantic coast, New Mexico, and Colorado. “[W]e would expect negative relationships between income and plumbing incompleteness (cold spots),” the authors write, and those can be seen in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana; the Four Corners; the Pacific Northwest; and Northern California.

Shiloh Deitz & Katie Meehan, Annals of the American Association of Geographers

The persistence of plumbing poverty is about much more than pipes and sewers: It is a threat to health and safety, from not being able to bathe or cook regularly or safely, to spending more time and money  purchasing water.

As the study authors write: “Plumbing poverty is produced through conditions of infrastructural violence: the slow burn of insecure water supply that negatively affects human life and capacity for development.”

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