Environmental Practice


ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEWS & CASE STUDIES: More Cost per Drop: Water Rates, Structural Inequality, and Race in the United States—The Case of Michigan

Rachel Buttsa1 and Stephen Gasteyera2 c1

a1 Graduate Student, Department of Sociology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan

a2 Department of Sociology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan


While much of the environmental justice literature has focused on exposure to environmental contaminants, this article argues that access to environmental goods should be explored, as well. We do this by looking at the rates paid for drinking and wastewater infrastructure in the United States (US). Although US residents, in aggregate, pay very little for water and sewer (around 1% of household income), the rate varies significantly by place (with Chicago residents paying roughly one fourth of the rates of residents in Atlanta, for instance). We ask whether particular groups may disproportionately pay higher rates. Using census data, we compare the cost of water and sewer across counties in Michigan and find tremendous disparity in reported expenditure. We then use multivariate regression analysis to investigate the relationship among income, urbanicity, race, and cost of water and sewer. Our findings indicate that a higher reported cost of water and sewer is associated most strongly with minority racial status. This results from postindustrial divestment and subsequent depopulation of particular urban areas. As a result, decreased demand (fewer households remaining in the city) actually increases prices (per remaining household), since water infrastructure costs are fixed, and this phenomenon disproportionately disadvantages people of color—who make up the majority of the great industrial cities.

Environmental Practice 13:386–395 (2011)

(Received December 31 2010)

(Revised April 13 2011)

(Accepted May 03 2011)

(Online publication December 22 2011)


c1 Stephen Gasteyer, Department of Sociology, Michigan State University, 316 Berkey Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824; (phone) 517-355-3505; 517-432-2856; (e-mail) gasteyer@msu.edu

Rachel Butts is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Over the decade prior, she worked as Director of Consumer Behavior Research & Demography in the private sector after graduating from Indiana University. She specializes in demography, survey methodology, and social problems in the United States. Her research emphasizes class and race inequalities in access to basic human subsistence in both rural and urban areas, with particular emphasis on the role of large-scale economic and political trends.

Stephen Gasteyer has been an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University since 2008. From 2005 to 2008, he was tenure-track at the University of Illinois. Prior, he worked as Research Director at the Rural Community Assistance Partnership in Washington, DC, and as a research consultant on international water issues from 2001 to 2002. He researches social change and natural resources management, including access to and performance of water and sanitation infrastructure in the United States and internationally. He has authored or coauthored 9 peer-review publications, 5 book chapters, and 27 monographs, reports, and nonrefereed articles.