Denying Drink to the Thirsty

The city of Detroit will again start shutting off water to tens of thousands—possibly a hundred thousand or 14 percent—of its residents next month. Thirty-thousand households had their water cut off last year in connection with the city’s bankruptcy, leaving charitable organizations scrambling to provide this necessity of life. The city’s actions even drew the attention of the United Nations, which it condemned as a straightforward human rights violation. 

The shutoffs are part of a scheme to make the water and sewage utility attractive to private investors, a key component of the bankruptcy settlement. The same scheme includes large rate hikes for a population that has some of the greatest poverty rates in the nation.

In ruling against a legal challenge to this cruel policy, bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes spoke for the US ruling class when he said that there is “no right to free or affordable water” in the same way that there is no such right to “other necessities of life such as shelter, food, and medical care.”[1] The same judge helped to impose massive cuts to city workers’ pensions, despite the fact that such measures are forbidden by the state constitution, while approving hundreds of millions of dollars in fees for the lawyers and consultants involved in the bankruptcy proceedings.

Apart from depriving its citizens of water, slashing their pensions, and selling off their assets in the form of public utilities, the “turnaround” in Detroit—much trumpeted by media and financial elites—has included hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to billionaire Mike Ilitch to build a new hockey stadium. He and other plutocrats have been allowed to buy up large sections of the city at rock bottom prices in order to “gentrify” certain areas and drive out the poor.

The water shutoffs are part of this overall lurch toward oligarchy—rule in the interests of the rich. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power, since the bankruptcy scheme had bipartisan support, including the Obama White House. Finding no one to speak for them in their own government at any level, the people had to resort to the United Nations! Such is the state of representative democracy today in the United States of America.

Imagine being in the situation of one of those households with no water. One morning, you go to get a drink, and nothing comes out of the tap. A grocery store or a convenience store might be many blocks away. And maybe it’s winter, or you’re elderly. Very likely, if you can’t afford to pay your water bill, you have no transportation. Do you go next door to ask to borrow water? Do you fill up buckets or…what? How do you flush the toilet or brush your teeth? With what will you mix infant formula if you are a mother? In shutting off the water for someone who has not paid his or her bill, you are not cruelly punishing just him but in many cases children.

But cruelty has always characterized rule by one class over another. The ruling class has always had nothing but contempt for the slave, the serf, and the wage worker, and it is no different today. But in a society informed by spirit of Christianity, things should be much different. Saint John Paul II condemned the failure of economically advanced societies to provide basic necessities to their citizens when they have the means to do so easily. In direct contradiction to Rhodes, he names as rights “the right to food and drinkable water, to housing and security, to self-determination and independence—which are still far from being guaranteed and realized.”[2]

Providing for human needs is the very reason human communities are instituted in the first place. If a political community—whether city, state or even a nation as a whole—fails to carry out its most basic functions, then it is in deep crisis. The water shutoffs in Detroit are a sign of a dire moral crisis. They are part of the Culture of Death. If we are serious about creating a Culture of Life, then the provision of the basic necessities of life like water is surely central to that.

Doran Hunter

[2] Quoted in Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, USCCB Communications, Washington, D.C., 2011, #365.