Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
May 2023

Affordability of Household Water Services Across the United States

Affordability of Household Water Services Across the United States cover

In the United States, most households gain access to water services (drinking water and wastewater) through water service providers (utilities). The costs of infrastructure, treatment, and operations and maintenance required to provide safe, reliable water services are primarily covered by the utility, with minimal subsidies or assistance from federal or state governments. Utilities generate revenue to pay the costs of providing water service by treating water as a commodity and charging their customers (including residential households) for access to potable water and the removal of wastewater. When water is treated as a commodity, failure to pay for services can result in loss of access to water.

This study seeks to quantify how many households may struggle to pay for water services across 787 of the largest drinking water providers in the United States. It finds that basic water services are unaffordable for 17% of households analyzed (28.3 million persons).

Household water affordability is the ability for a household to pay for basic water services without undue hardship. The authors select 6,000 gallons per month (22.7 m3/mo) as sufficient to meet basic needs and define undue hardship as spending more than 4.6% of household income (one day of labor each month) to pay for water services. Monthly bills are combined with census income data based on service area boundaries to determine how many households are spending more than 4.6% of their income on water services. The median, or representative community, has one in seven households spending more than 4.6% of their income paying for water services.

A data visualization was developed to allow users to explore how affordability challenges change across different volumes of water and levels of financial hardship. This research shows that household water unaffordability is not a localized problem but is a challenge experienced by households across the nation.