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There are two Americas, and of the many things that divide affluent Americans from poor ones, the one that we talk about the least might be the ability to take waste disposal for granted. But, of course, it isn’t always the case: tree roots growing into a fragile pipe, a stopped drain, or a power outage can temporarily disable a waste system. It can also send sewage shooting back up into the house at a terrifying velocity.
But many poor and Black people, particularly in the South, are forced to live with their own waste, day in and day out. It isn’t an aberration—it’s life in a community with no public sewers. So Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell (AL-7) decided to do something about it. As the Alabama Reporter announced yesterday, Sewell’s bill, the Decentralized Wastewater Grant Act (H.R. 3745), was included in the House Democrats’ INVEST in America Act (H.R.3684). Sewell’s Republican co-sponsor is Brian Babin (TX-26), whose district borders Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico and will fund connecting individual homes to public wastewater systems.
For almost twenty years, Democratic politicians have talked about the so-called “two Americas.” It’s a concept that may have originated with Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), an influential muckraking volume that tackled the endurance of poverty in a country that preferred to celebrate affluence and success.
Five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted the phrase for the title of a speech he gave at Stanford University. He argued for a Universal Basic Income and signaled his own turn to poverty as a broad-based civil rights issue. “There are literally two Americas,” King explained. “One America is beautiful …this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.”
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search of jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America, people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
These “lonely islands of poverty” were not, of course, confined to the South. They existed everywhere in the United States. They were rural and urban, industrial and agricultural, white as well as Black and Brown. And much of that neglect has tragically continued for the last 60 years. So, yes, the 2014 water crisis in Flint was triggered by a series of political decisions that ranged from irresponsible to stupid. But what created irreversible damage was the lead pipes that the state of Michigan and the federal government have been content to leave in place in poor communities three decades after they were banned.
Compared to a city of millions suddenly realizing it is being poisoned by tap water, the sewage crisis that is endemic to poor, mostly Black, communities in the South gets little attention. One of the most compelling articles you can read about this is Alexis Okeowo’s “The Heavy Toll of the Black Belt’s Wastewater Crisis,” a New Yorker essay from November 2020. Okeowo describes the situation in Lowndes County, Alabama, where raw sewage pools in backyards, runs by the side of country roads, and infects trailer parks with stench and disease
The problem is, in part, an engineering issue combined with climate change. As Okeowo explains, Alabama’s soil is mostly non-porous clay, making septic tanks—where waste is allowed to seep into the ground slowly, allowing bacteria to do the sanitary work—a poor solution. “For these conditions,” Okeowo writes,
the state recommends a “mound” system, which uses piled-up dirt to filter waste. Yet, in a region with a high water table and intense rains exacerbated by climate change, the mounds frequently erode and the tanks fail, sending sewage back through toilets, sinks, and bathtubs.
Fewer than half of the residents of Lowndes County have a functioning septic system: some have none at all. But, as Okeowo points out, “In Alabama, not having a functioning septic system is a criminal misdemeanor. Residents can be fined as much as five hundred dollars per citation, evicted, and even arrested.” Because a new sewer system can cost more than a Lowndes County resident makes in a year, many use a “straight pipe” that delivers the waste into the backyard.
So the problem is a layered one: public health, economics, and criminal justice combine to trap owners and renters in a cycle of illness, legal obligations that are impossible to comply with, and paying off onerous fines for a situation that is properly a public—not an individual—responsibility.
But Alabama has made sewage an individual responsibility. Brandon Mosely of the Alabama Reporter frames the problem as almost completely environmental and circumstantial. “Many communities, particularly in Alabama’s Black Belt,” he writes, due largely to the distinctive soils the region is named for, have severe wastewater issues” (emphasis mine). But the Alabama legislature has always known the quality of its soil, and it has never invested in public sewage systems that addressed the issue.
Why? For the same reason that government neglected the water systems in Flint and Newark: poor people, and mostly Black people, live there. And federal money that goes to address conditions that keep people in poverty is too often dismissed by conservatives as pork.
H.R. 3745 is poised to address this important problem over a century too late. But it also points up what may be a Biden administration strategy: encourage Democrats in red states to float legislation that will help not just their own voters but everybody’s voters.
This kind of neglect is not just an Alabama problem, so it requires a national solution. But, unfortunately, we can’t convince forgotten Americans that government works by Twitter alone: we have to show them, because the government has a long record of passing over, and passing by, the poor.
And we can start by cleaning up the stink of neglect that both political parties have ignored for so long. Digging ditches down long, country roads to put in public sewer systems is an excellent start.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).