A consequence of white flight: costs for aging infrastructure born more by minorities

The phenomenon of white flight in the United States refers to whites leaving urban neighborhoods in the decades after World War II and going to the suburbs to avoid growing minority populations. Several researchers recently uncovered a latent consequence of white flight:

Racial minorities pay systemically more for basic water and sewer services than white people, according to a study by Michigan State University researchers.

This “structural inequality” is not necessarily a product of racism, argues sociologist Stephen Gasteyer, but rather the result of whites fleeing urban areas and leaving minority residents to bear the costs of maintaining aging water and sewer infrastructure…

The researchers analyzed Census data on self-reported water and sewer costs in Michigan. The study found that urban residents actually pay more than rural residents, which refutes conventional wisdom, Gasteyer said…

Detroit is the “poster child” for this problem, Gasteyer said. The city has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950, and the water and sewer infrastructure is as much as a century old in some areas. Billions of gallons of water are lost through leaks in the aging lines every year, and the entire system has been under federal oversight since 1977 for wastewater violations.

Very interesting: another infrastructure problem to be solved and it happens to fall disproportionally on minority populations. It would be interesting to see this analysis extended beyond Michigan – is this primarily a Rust Belt phenomenon where the big cities have some infrastructure that dates to around 1900 or does this also apply to newer Sunbelt cities?

Overall, it might be helpful for those who argue the United States needs to seriously put a lot money into infrastructure to demonstrate how much this matters to everyone and how much the aging (leaks, potholes, etc.) costs everyone each year. It is pretty hard to live without water and sewers but it wasn’t too long ago that these were not regular amenities. Indeed, 1890 was roughly a turning point when both big cities and smaller suburbs could put together their own infrastructure systems to serve residents. (This also lines up with the period when suburbs started resisting annexation to big cities as they could handle these amenities themselves.) Add roads, electricity, and natural gas to this and you have a system that is vital to modern life but is relatively behind the scenes. If you could add a fairness/social justice dimension to it (the most aging infrastructure is in places that can least afford it), this could be a very public issue.

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