Half a million households in U.S. lack proper plumbing
The hard clay soil in this rural Southern county has twice cursed Dorothy Rudolph. It is good for growing cotton and cucumbers, the crops she worked as a child and hated. And it is bad for burying things — in particular, septic tanks.
So Rudolph, 64, did what many people around here do. She ran a plastic pipe from her toilet under her yard and into the woods behind her house. Paying to put in a septic tank would cost around $6,000 — a little more than half of her family’s annual income.
“It was a whole lot of money,” she said. “It still is.”
Here in Lowndes County, part of a strip of mostly poor, majority-black counties that cuts through the rural center of Alabama, less than half of the population is on a municipal sewer line. While that is not a hardship for more affluent communities — about one in five American homes are not on city sewer lines — the legacy of rural poverty has left its imprint here: Many people have failing septic tanks and are too poor to fix them. Others, like Rudolph, have nothing at all.
That is not so uncommon. Nearly half a million households in the United States lack the basic dignity of hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower, or a working flush toilet, according to the Census Bureau. The absence has implications for public health in the very population that is the most vulnerable.
Crumbling infrastructure has been a theme of this country’s reinvigorated public conversation about race — for instance, a botched fix for old pipes in Flint, Mich., that contaminated the city’s drinking water with lead. But in poor, rural places like Lowndes County, there has never been much infrastructure to begin with.
“We didn’t have anything — no running water, no inside bathrooms,” said John Jackson, a former mayor of White Hall, a town of about 800 in Lowndes that is more than 90 percent black and did not have running water until the early 1980s. “Those were things we were struggling for.”
“The bottom line is, I can’t afford a septic system,” said Cheryl Ball, a former cook who had a heart attack several years ago and receives disability payments. She lives in a grassy field on which only three of seven homes have septic tanks. Most banks now require proof that a home has proper sewage disposal before lending, but Ball paid cash for her mobile home — $4,000.
This area, known as the Black Belt (so called more for its soil than its demographics), is haunted by its history of white violence toward African-Americans and a deep, biting poverty.
Lowndes is one of the poorest counties in the country, and its rural population, whose trailers and small houses dot the lush green landscape, often cannot afford the thousands of dollars it costs to put in a tank. Municipalities, with low tax bases, cannot afford extensive sewer lines.
Rudolph, a retired seamstress, and her husband, a carpenter, live in a tiny, white clapboard house that he built after he, his parents and his siblings fled their home on land owned by a white man who forbade the family to vote. She remembers, as a young girl in the 1950s, not having electricity. They obtained running water in the early 1990s, she said, and used an outhouse until the mid-1990s.