Detroit Needs Water to Work

Remember the Detroit Walking Man - that stalwart worker who walked 21 miles a day to work from his home in Detroit, captivating the nation and inspiring a shower of donations and support? Imagine if he didn’t have water. Imagine he had fallen on hard times, or broken his leg, or just couldn’t make the payment one month and his water was cut off. It’s not hard to imagine – nearly half of his neighbors have lived it. Water shutoffs are an everyday reality here in Detroit.

If James Robertson, aka the Walking Man, didn’t have water, you wouldn’t have heard of him. He wouldn’t be able to walk to work, and he wouldn’t be able to keep a decent job. People need water to live, and people need water to work. Denying water to somebody because they can’t pay a bill is denying them the opportunity to work. It’s denying them the right to get a job. It’s an eviction notice from the city.

Now some might say, “The Walking Man has water because he paid his bill, because he got up off his butt and walked 21 miles and got himself a job!” And they’re right, yet their logic is reversed: James doesn’t have water because he works, he works because he has water. He didn’t earn that water with his labor, like he earned a television or a microwave or (now) a new car and the admiration of the nation. Those things are luxury items, not necessities; they are the fruits of our labor. Some of us have come to confuse these things with essential needs, perhaps because we don’t feel we control our water or our food or our electricity anymore: we “buy” these things a la carte from people who make a profit by selling them to us. When their profit is in jeopardy, they can withdraw our access. That is the definition of a commodity.

There are some who believe that the solution to ever-increasing water rates due to sky-rocketing bond debt payments is simply more financial assistance from non-profits and governments to those who cannot afford to pay. This is a false solution, akin to a band-aid covering a bullet wound. Subsidizing the price of a human necessity in order to ensure that bondholders receive a 7% return on their “investment” in our drinking water is a recipe for disaster: there will never be enough public assistance to satisfy the profit margins demanded by the banks.

A real solution is to acknowledge that water is a human right, not a commodity to be sold for anybody’s profit. From this basis, we must conclude that any conflict between the bondholders and the water users must resolve in the favor of our continued access to water. It would behoove the money managers of our fair city, and the politicians who are supposed to direct them, to keep this in mind when determining how to finance the operations of our public water system: if people cannot afford water, you just cannot raise the rates. If we can’t pay, we won’t pay.

If there is any conflict between the rights of property and the rights of man, then we must stand for the rights of man. ― Theodore Roosevelt

This is exactly why the threat of water shutoff is counterproductive, and inevitably leads to more people leaving the city and even less people paying water bills. In the case of Detroit water shutoffs are extremely expensive and time-consuming, costing the city nearly $6 million and hundreds of workers that could instead by fixing the pipes and delivering better service to ratepayers. Instead, these workers are now caught in a cat-and-mouse game with low-income Detroiters (or their swindling landlords) who’ve cut their water back on illegally out of desperation. Once the city acknowledges the former Emergency Manager’s royal mistake in initiating the program, they should promptly move to end it once and for all.

Ending the water shutoffs opens up the door to myriad solutions to our city’s problems: fixing the crumbling water infrastructure, putting Detroit’s 160,000 unemployed workers to work, repairing our roads, creating renewable energy sources… the list goes on and on. In the wake of a financial crisis in Argentina, in 2006 the government put thousands of people to work fixing the slums around Buenos Aires through the Agua y Trabajo (Water and Work) Program in real partnership with local community block associations and non-profits. Argentina understood that water infrastructure is a job creator, and Detroit should follow suit.

Detroit needs water to work, and we’re ready to work to fix our water.