Black, Indigenous, Hispanic communities see less of a return on investment for water infrastructure, MSU Sociology research finds

March 21, 2023 - Karessa Weir

Access to clean water and sanitation are considered basic necessities yet millions are without either across the United States. This just doesn’t affect their daily lives and health but their ability to attract economic investment and development into their communities.

And for communities that are Black, Hispanic or Indigenous, even when water and sewer infrastructure investments are made, less development follows because of the lack of other community assets. 

Dr. Stephen GasteyerA new wide-ranging research paper “The ethnically and racially uneven role of water infrastructure spending in rural economic development,” by Drs. Stephen Gasteyer (MSU Sociology) and J. Tom Mueller (University of Oklahoma), has been published in the journal Nature Water

It has been proven that local government spending on water and sewer infrastructure can lead to a return on investment in terms of economic development on a scale of 1:5 - for every $1 invested in water, $5 is returned in the form of economic development in the community. However, that does not happen in minoritized communities. In fact, the benefits of investment decrease as counties become more Latinx, Indigenous or Black.

 “Continued investment in rural water infrastructure has the potential to have wide-ranging, but possibly uneven economic benefits for residents,” they wrote.

“Many rural areas of the United States—our focus in this study—remain in a prolonged state of economic stagnation, while facing degrading, and often failing, water infrastructure, as well as shrinking tax bases due to depopulation.”

 As a policy issue, Dr. Gasteyer would call on the federal government to increase investment in improving access to clean water and sanitation as those can be incredibly expensive for local communities to install and maintain. In addition to those who don’t have any infrastructure, millions more have systems that are consistently failing or in non-compliance, he said. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Inflation Redirection Act and previous COVID economic policies all offer a large infusion of capital across the nation but its impact on Latinx, Indigenous and Black communities could be greater.

“This is telling us that it is important to have targeted investment and the ability to leverage more investments into minoritized communities,” Dr. Gasteyer said.

 Gasteyer and Mueller compared county-area spending on water instructure with economic development in the rural U.S. from 1980-2015, and how that association  varies across ethnoracial groups. They found it takes an average of 8 years for the returns on the infrastructure investment to become evident. 

But given the fact that minoritized communities already lag behind in water infrastructure investment - leading to serious problems such as those in Flint, Michigan - the impact of additional infrastructure still doesn’t bring the kind of return seen in wealthier and whiter communities.

 “The mechanisms for this lower return on investment are the specific mechanisms and outcomes of systemic racism in the United States and include the lower access to credit and wealth found in Black, Latino and Indigenous communities, the long-term decline experienced in these communities due to institutional neglect and outright hostility from state governments, the history of redlining and segregation across the entire country and the preferences of certain businesses to locate in communities with different ethnoracial compositions, among others,” they wrote.

For those benefits to be seen in these communities, additional infrastructure needs to be improved as well, such as roads, schools, credit ratings of a community and human capital, Dr. Gasteyer said. For instance, a new water treatment plant might make it possible to open a brewery in a minority neighborhood but it would also need a government entity to improve roads to the brewery so it might not happen.

 The authors did find examples where additional infrastructure investments improved a minoritized community such as in Roanoke, Virginia. There an influx of water and sewer infrastructure led to the building of a community center that then served as a place for residents to plan their own business ventures.

“It is feasible that this can happen but it isn't happening organically because there just isn't the same access to capital,” Dr. Gasteyer said.

 Dr. Gasteyer is an Associate Professor of Sociology. His research focuses on community development, environmental justice, and the political ecology of landscape change, with specific attention to food, energy, water, and public health. Recent research has addressed the food access and impacts urban greening in small US cities, alternative energy and community action, environmental equity in access to water and sanitation, and water governance. 

Dr. Mueller is a Research Assistant Professor of Geography and Environmental Sustainability and a Faculty Affiliate in Sociology at the University of Oklahoma. He is a rural sociologist and demographer focused on inequality, health, and well-being in rural America.