A bipartisan pair of Senators recently unveiled legislation to address the growing crisis of water affordability in America. The Low-Income Water Customer Assistance Programs Act (S.3564), sponsored by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), would establish a pilot program to fund low-income water assistance programs in 32 public water utilities across the country.
The bill allows for flexibility in program design and grants would go to utilities serving both small and large populations. Utilities could use the funds for traditional assistance programs like lifeline rates or bill discounts, but crucially, the bill also makes available “percentage-of-income payment plan[s].” This type of program design gets closer to what water affordability advocates mean when they talk about true water affordability programs, rather than just water assistance programs.
Limiting water payments to a fixed, low percentage of household income is the only way to guarantee that the bill does not present an unreasonable burden for a household. Traditional assistance mechanisms like bill discounts and direct financial assistance aren’t as effective in helping low-income households get out from under the burden of large, accumulated water debt. What does a $25 monthly bill credit mean to a low-income household facing thousands of dollars in unpaid water bills? While we applaud the bill’s authors for including income-based payment plans in the pilot program, the legislation would do more for its target populations if it prioritized income-based programs over the traditional assistance programs that have proven unable to stop the water shutoff crisis.
This legislation is timely, if not already overdue, as research continues to shed light on the scale of the water affordability challenge in America. A major new survey from Food & Water Watch found that an estimated 15 millions Americans experienced a water shutoff in 2016. Meanwhile, a recent study from Senator Wicker’s office found that water bills are expected to rise 41 percent nationally by 2020.
The diverse constituencies behind the bill’s two co-sponsors also demonstrate that water affordability is both a rural and an urban issue. In a public appearance to tout the bill, Senator Cardin explained that he sees Baltimore, a city acutely struggling with water shutoffs, as an ideal candidate for one of the pilot programs the bill would establish. Senator Wicker, for his part, explained that the bill has the potential to benefit underserved communities in his predominantly rural state of Mississippi.
The bipartisan cooperation between Senators Cardin and Wicker on this bill is refreshing given the current highly-divided political environment in Washington. The bill has companion legislation in the House sponsored called the Low-Income Sewer and Water Assistance Program Act. The House bill’s sponsor, Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH), praised the new Senate bill and said she looks forward to cooperation on this issue. We’ll keep you posted on any new developments as this legislation proceeds.