A few days ago, in the aftermath of a quick post about the ongoing water crisis in Detroit, a reader by the name of Anne left a comment suggesting that, to a large extent, non-profits working in the City were steering clear of the issue. As I read her comment, she seemed to be of the opinion that the current uproar over water shut-offs in Detroit was more the work of outsiders looking to “save” the City, who perhaps didn’t really grasp the fact that, for the most part, the individuals having their water cut off were people who hadn’t paid their bills for years, in spite of having the funds to do so. While she’s right, of course, that many who recently had their water service terminated were people that merely took advantage of a broken system, in which, for years, non-payment of water bills did not result in termination of service, I take some issue with her comments about how it’s not Detroit natives leading the charge. Having just attended the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit, I can tell you with some degree of confidence that there’s a large and growing grassroots movement in the city pushing this forward.
If you have a moment, I’d suggest that you watch the following video, shot at the conference, featuring Abayomi Azikiwe of Moratorium Now!, Meredith Begin of Food and Water Watch, Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People Detroit, Jean Ross of National Nurses United, and Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, who, by the way, was leading a petition drive in 2009 to “make water affordable and stop shutting off the water of low-income people” in Detroit. This session, titled Turn on the Water! How Locals are Fighting Back Against the Shutoffs, was moderated by Peter Hammer, the director of Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.
[Jump to 32:30.]
Speaking of comments left on this site in the wake of my last post on the Detroit water crisis, here are a few that I found interesting. I think, taken as a whole, they pretty well reflect the diversity of views people hold about the issue… And they remind me, once again, just how awesome of a readership that I have. [note: A few of these comments have been slightly edited in order to improve clarity.]
I don’t understand the strategy behind this movement/protest.
Where were the big national-attention-getting protests and Hollywood celebrities when Detroit/Michigan neighborhood were being picked clean by multinational banks and their predatory loan practices?
Or when Michigan legislators deliberately engineered policies that drove older Michigan cities like Detroit toward bankruptcy, privatization, and into the hands of “Emergency Managers?”
Or when tens of thousands of public workers — including police officers, firefighters, teachers, bus drivers, and office clerks — were being told “sorry,” but the pension and health care benefits for which they worked for 20, 25, 30 years … won’t be there for them when they retire?
While I’m sure there are many very poor people in Detroit who need/deserve help with paying their water bills, in this case it appears that many may have simply been strategically taking advantage of a system in which for many years on end there were little/no consequences for not paying.
So I would ask the people behind these protests: Who *should* pay the cost for the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to build and maintain a system capable of collecting, treating, and delivering billions of gallons water to millions of individual homes and businesses across a seven-county area?
I’m sure the organizers mean well, and I suspect much of this outrage is really aimed at the multinational banks, corporations, and governments that have put Detroit (and Michigan) citizens in such a dire predicament … but having this much energy and attention focused on the water issue — while ignoring or discounting the larger forces at play — seems like a tactical mistake.
And given metro Detroit’s already toxic landscape with regard to race, class, and geography, it is hard for me to imagine how having Hollywood celebrities descend from their private jets to lecture us all about how, for those living in the City of Detroit, water should be a “right” (presumably paid for by higher water rates on suburbanites) is really going to help.
From the Rustbelt Radical:
Detroit sits next on 20% of the world’s fresh water and has the third largest water supply system in the country, and yet thousands of its people are denied access to clean water. If that’s not a damning indictment of the capitalist model, than I don’t know what is.
Why not do what some places do that, by virtue of living in the land with all this oil, share that wealth in subsidies and investments in social services with residents? This water, owned by the citizens of Detroit, provides over 4 million people, largely in the suburbs with water. You would think it would be considered a huge asset of the city in its renewal. Instead of investing large amounts to identify and deal with the many redundant lines and services belonging to abandoned buildings, in order to restore some efficiency. No, the world of capital will not allow for that.
New Detroit chooses to increase rates 9% on rates that are already twice the national average on the people least able to pay ($75 a month when you live on less than $1000 is simply a hardship). And then, turn off the spigot on the poorest and most vulnerable; those behind for the measly amount of $15, or as also happened in many cases—those in good standing. All the while water runs in the street from innumerable breaks, water continues to flow to countless abandoned structures and businesses that owe 100s of thousands in debt to the Water Department aren’t touched. The golf clubs necessary to make the privatizations deals that are undoubtedly already being discussed still get theirs, $400,000 of debt or not.
But what’s not necessary to that deal, are all those black, and mostly poor, people that make up eighty-something percent of the City’s population. More than unnecessary, they are an impediment to be removed. Then the real ‘Development’ can commence.
Remember when we learned about the end of Reconstruction, the reintroduction of share cropping, the end of black elected officials and the rise of Jim Crow? Well, I think we are looking at something analogous here now. Black political power was exercised, for the first time since Reconstruction, in the mainly large, northern industrial, urban centers, backed up by municipal and other unions. With the disenfranchisement of a majority of Michigan’s black citizens, the ‘Right to Work’ enactments and the end of manufacturing and with it, any hope at bettering your position through work, we can add what amounts to forced removal of unwanted population from those cities, so that the land might be better used.
The end of the Second Reconstruction is happening now, in our cities, before our eyes; this time in the era of neo-liberalism, and of the first black President.
Elf, the water bills are already subsidized for poor people. They simply chose not to pay their bills because they knew it wouldn’t be shut off. Years and years of in paid bills. This is maddening. This isn’t someone behind $15 and a month late.
Why the fuck are people rallying around people that refuse to pay their bills? This isn’t corporate greed. This isn’t people getting screwed by politicians. This is people trying to get something for free that costs billions of dollars. What the fuck is going on in this world?
I think that Detroit needs to make allowances for the very poor or come up with innovative ways to pay for water service so that the very poor can have access to it.
However, while access to clean water is a human right, there is nothing to suggest that access to water free of charge is a human right, which, more often than not, seems to be the underlying message.
Michigan may have plenty of fresh water, but it still costs money to pump it in, treat it and then deal with waste water.
It seems that people don’t realize this. Regardless of ideology, this is just a reality.I had to pay to get my well dug, the pump and to have a septic put in. Perhaps it was my human right to have that done for free?
I’m still working through my thoughts on the matter. I’m by no means one of the most vocal on this subject. (I do not see how unlimited water can be delivered for free to all people.) With that said, though, I think the current situation we’re seeing unfold in Detroit is about more than just water. It’s about poverty, and a system in which the poor pay disproportionately more just to live. It’s just coming into sharp focus here, through the lens of water. I agree wholeheartedly that people who can pay their bills should pay them. I likewise agree that many people just haven’t paid for years because they knew they wouldn’t be shut off. (The last bill to get paid is likely the one that you don’t fear will be cut off.) I don’t think there’s any doubt, however, that many have been cut off who cannot afford to pay water bills that continue to rise. And I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg. With wages dropping faster and the cost of living is rising, it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing stories like this across the country.
You will never admit it, but its a lot more beneficial for someone making say $20k a year to not work at all. They’d have exactly the same lifestyle with government benefits. So tell me, why they should work?
Dan, they shouldn’t work. And they don’t. They can just go to one of countless Michigan Lawyers, who get them into the disability pipeline. Tens of thousands are lined up waiting to collect a free check.
And the parents just keep having more kids they can’t pay for or take care of, because they know they will get welfare. A water bill is just one example of the bigger problem of lack of personal responsibility.
You have one baby and need help? You should get welfare help. You have a second one? Done. No more money. The city is bankrupt. The state is pretty much bust too.
If you don’t agree that people should be personally responsible, then keep voting for socialism, and soon we’ll have 40% unemployment, just like Spain. Is that compassionate to vote for idiots that want to transform this country into Spain?
Pay your damn water bill people.
I’m certainly of the opinion that this situation is the result of a failure of governance. The Detroit City Government should have been proactive about collecting fees for water in the past, and their failure has come back to haunt them, though in a manner slightly different than one might otherwise expect. Failures of governance would usually mean that water service would benefit no one or exclude the poor from the beginning.
I am not very sympathetic here. Returning to a state of regular collections of fee for services does not constitute a human rights violation and, certainly, as I said before, there is no such thing as a “human right to free water” given the high costs of providing water services.
However, the protests are clearly about more than water and should be taken seriously. The water issue has merely served as a springboard for demonstrations regarding a long history of political and economic marginalization and poor city governance.
As for whether the poor pay more to live, they do. Payday loans are often the only banking services available to the poor, as regular banks and credit unions don’t usually offer liquid credit to people whose account balances are usually zero. Non-poor people have credit cards, also a service unavailable to the very poor. This is exactly why payday loan places are able to operate. And while it can be debated as to whether the poor need to have access to liquid credit at all, sudden expenses while living hand to mouth can surface at anytime in the form of disease, injury and car repairs.
It has been shown that prices for goods in poor areas are higher than in wealthy areas even in absolute terms. Detroit’s lack of a large grocery store, for example, forces people to buy food from convenience stores and small markets which are not able to buy good in bulk and pass savings on to customers so that households pay more for food than other places. While it can be argued that people could just visit a farmers market, many poor people work multiple jobs and require the convenience of 24 hour access to food, something a farmers market can’t provide.
From afar, it all seems simple. Having been poor for most of my life, I can tell you that it is not. Poverty is a complicated existence, it is expensive and full of volatilities.
…but personal responsibility is the single most important existential criteria whatsoever, if these thousands of people in pure destitution cant pay their water bill, let ‘em die. The illiterate denizens of an apocalyptic postmodern ruin should be just like the heroic and spiritually pure corperate people who rule our plutocratic oligarcy. As you know our corperate overlords are just bastions of personal responsibility, and never require handouts…like the 110 billion dollars Fortune 500 companies have recieved in corperate welfare since 1976, which includes 13 billion dollars for Boeing, & over 1 billion for Berkshire Hathaway. We also must keep the billions of tax dollars flowing to Israel so they can have enough ammo to murder soccer-playing Palestinian children on beaches. These international corperations with assets in excess of 58B (Warren Buffet) actually need our welfare more then these lazy, good for nothing, socialist blacks, who probably should just be executed en masse for their lack of personal responsibility…
I’m very interested to know what ‘human rights’ even are… at all. If water is not a human right, when every man woman & child require water to live, & we are made of over 70% water, then what is a ‘human’ ‘right’? Are these solely what the technological fist of our twisted nihilisitic world deigns to contingently grant to us? Are rights somehow rooted in the disordered ratiocinations/incomplete project of the Enlightenment from 400 years ago? Are they intrinsic to being-human? Like a human being has apriori rights a fortiori? Or does the vengeful sky god of the US religious nihilists give them to us? Where do rights come from, and what are they?
Dan, you are living in the past. Able bodied males get no government assistance. With Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), women only receive assistance for a maxium of 4 years over the course of their lifetimes here in Michigan. I guess you have not noticed the explosion of begging on our streets. This last year I began seeing young able bodied woman at exit ramps begging for the first time.
Gotta say, it looks and feels like a pathology–this (highly engineered, heavily sponsored) turn toward anti-community in the guise of wanting “freedom.” It’s not natural! The people who pretend they got where they are on their own have invested so much in disliking others, sitting in judgment. If not for grants of a kind and pooled resources, would they have drinkable water, a highway to drive upon, a school, a library, a life? Funny (not funny!) how they keep track to make it look like they’re paying for things while others are not. A very unseemly construction. Gotta move beyond this willfully unwholesome era – we know it could be much better for many more people. So much work to do… not exactly simple work either.
The programs for poor people to help them pay for their water are inadequate. Water in the city of Detroit costs about double what it costs in Ypsilanti, partly due to things like older infrastructure and a large number of people not paying. Free water (up to a point) is a human right imho. The solution seems obvious to me. Socialize water and provide a certain amount per person free of charge and then charge a LOT for anything over that amount. Get the people who landscape or fill pools to subsidize everyone else.
And for those of you who have no compassion for your fellow human beings, look at it from a purely selfish angle. There are some serious diseases which can crop up if sanitation isn’t adequate. If there is one thing society should want to encourage, it is toilet flushing and hand washing. Just from the public health perspective…
I might also mention that the Palmer Park Golf Club in Detroit owes the city $200,000 in unpaid water bills. We also use a lot of water for things like baseball fields. Comerica park owes the city $55,000 for water. Hockey ice rinks apparently use $80,000 of water which has not been paid for. If we are going to have a discussion about deadbeats, perhaps we can start there?
Potable water to drink is a basic human right. That represents about 1% of the 100 gallons of water used by the average American. Flushing the toilet with clean water that is fit to drink is not not a human right.
I know I won’t convince all of you, but I do hope that at least some of you come away from this post recognizing, as I do now, that this is about more than just lazy Detroiters looking to game the system. This is about the rising cost of being poor in America. This is about the cost of living rising as wages fall. This is about the end of the American middle class. And Detroit is ground zero.
It’s worth pointing out that, after last week’s big protest in Detroit, and the letter from the United Nations, the City has issued a 15-day moratorium on water shutoffs. Furthermore, Canadians have begun smuggling water across the border for the people of Detroit and someone has launched a website where donors across the world can be matched up with Detroiters who need help in order to pay their water bills.