How underfunding and white flight contributed to Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis
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The capital and most populous city in Mississippi, Jackson, has a water problem. This week, officials announced that most of the city’s 150,000 residents were without safe drinking water. The problem stems from underinvestment in aging water infrastructure – it also tends to happen in cities that also have majority Black populations and a legacy of white flight.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave drinking water infrastructure throughout the country a C- in its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card.
“What’s led us to that has been underinvestment,” said Joseph Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution focusing on infrastructure issues. “Water infrastructure, similar to other infrastructure systems, like transportation, energy, for decades, has just not received durable and predictable funding.”
Part of the problem is that most cities use low interest federal loans to fund infrastructure investments. David Sedlak, director of the Water Center at UC Berkeley, said those loans have to be paid back – and they don’t cover everything.
“The day-to-day operations, and ultimately, the costs of those loans come back to the billing cycle and the customer’s ability to pay,” he said.
In Jackson, Mississippi — where the population is more than 80% Black — white flight has drained the city’s tax base.
When white residents and businesses left to avoid desegregation in the 1960s and later, they took their tax dollars with them. Eric Avila at UCLA said we saw a similar situation in Flint, Michigan – which speaks to broader infrastructure inequality.
“When it comes to basic services like water, transportation, electricity, you know, even the internet it can’t be based on who can pay and who can’t pay basis,” he said.
And the solution, he said, lies in public policy that treats things like water access as fundamental human rights.
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