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When Cities Shut the Water Off

When cities are bankrupted, punishing poor people becomes the new normal.

A man holds a bottle of water as he joins other demonstrators protesting against the Detroit Water and Sewer Department, July 18, 2014, in Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Water and Sewer Department have disconnected water to thousands of Detroit residents.

In 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department started its most recent egregious campaign of mass water shutoffs that targeted low-income, residential customers who were behind in payments. In June of that year, rumors started to surface about poisoned public water in Flint, Michigan. Both issues marked the start of long nights of terror for blue-collar workers, a terror that has not yet ended. Concerns over water were not new to those in the American Rust Belt, but never before had their ferocity and scale reached such depths.

Since the start of this crisis, Detroit has seen upwards of 100,000 water disconnections over a period of just a few years. We have been left with no choice but to fight for our lives as we try to envision what a different kind of world might look like – a world that won’t punish poor people because they are poor.

To be threatened with shutoff, a household has to be two months behind in payments, or $150 in arrears. And when the city turns off the water, more neighborhood issues surface. Children can be removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Infectious diseases connected to the build-up of surface algae and other contaminants inside of water pipes are passed from household to household.

Despite multi-level battles to stop these draconian practices and their vicious side effects, residents have not been able to demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of water shutoffs or water poisonings. Attempts to privatize what has always been a public common may have been slowed. But the city is still focused on treating clean water and sanitation as a commodity to be bought and sold. It’s scandalous to support the notion that if you can’t pay for water, you can’t have it.

Highland Park, a suburb of Detroit, was first to feel the pain of water privatization attempts, which came after the community lost more than 50 percent of its population. The standard of living for working people started to change in small, imperceptible ways in the mid-1980s, coupled with population declines as companies shed massive numbers of high-paying jobs in favor of automation.

Technology that used to enhance labor now replaces labor. Nowhere is that fact more prevalent than in major cities located in the Rust Belt and its long-established tradition of hard work. Since the age of industrialization, blue-collar America has known one way of living – you work, you earn a paycheck, you spend it on those things you need to live, you run out of money, so you return to work – the cycle repeats. Cities like Cincinnati, Chicago, Gary, Flint, Highland Park, Pontiac, Detroit and others all have similar histories that tie them to industries that required massive numbers of laborers.

Detroit and its neighboring communities built cars for the world, and that world was connected to automobile manufacturing and all the ancillary items that kept the industry thriving. After Henry Ford advertised the first $5/day opportunity in 1914 for those willing to work on the assembly line, blue-collar workers – especially those in unions – established a pattern for the nation to follow: eight-hour days, extra pay on weekends, holiday pay, vacation time, healthcare, and all the other associated benefits. Municipal employees based their own contracts on the employee-employer negotiations set in factories. The quality of life for millions of people were tied to these relationships from 1914 to 1984.

When these jobs were replaced by automation, families across the country had to look for ways to make ends meet with smaller wages, fewer benefits, and the forfeiture of traditional opportunities. Detroit became the poster-child of this phenomenon, thanks to the closure of mega-auto production sites like Dodge Main, Chevrolet Gear and Axle, Cadillac Fleetwood, and so many others.

The Ford Rouge Complex in Dearborn, MI used to employ just over 100,000 workers – even during the Great Depression. Today it employes just a few thousand, yet they make more cars with far, far fewer hands. With the onset of high-tech manufacturing methods, the die was cast. Detroit went from 1.9 million residents to just over 700,000 today. And with that population decline came a questioning of what belongs to the public.

With the population on the move, why keep so many schools open or teachers working? Why bother to provide affordable housing? Why treat healthcare, public transportation, community safety, and access to clean water and sanitation as human rights, when they can be moved to the realm of the marketplace?

The so-called Detroit bankruptcy sealed our fate and made open game of our city assets. I don’t live in a bankrupt city – I live in a city that was bankrupted! Elected officials said they had no other answer to Detroit’s population decline and economic problems besides selling off city assets that once belonged to the people. Our commons became a means to balance the financial books during challenging economic times.

The concept of access to clean water and sanitation, even for the poorest among us, has always been part of the public commons, viewed as something owned by humanity as a rule. But it appears that a new set of rules codifies mass water shutoffs. The suffering of working people who live on fixed incomes is part of our new normal.

How does the government treat poor people, poor children, poor retirees, poor disabled persons, and poor veterans? It denies them access to clean water. We are left to create our own methods of survival as the only option for Detroit, for Highland Park, for Flint and for the other cities and townships across the country facing shutoffs of public services.