Detroit is facing a “water crisis,” a mess that has erupted since the city filed for bankruptcyprotection last year.
Weak enforcement combined with city mismanagement led to bankruptcy, prompting the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to seek a remedy for the $90 million in unpaid bills owed by over half of its 170,000 residents.
The city warned its delinquent customers in March they would lose water service unless they made arrangements to pay their bills. In June, the department shut off 7,200 homes’ water access. Most services were restored within 24 hours as people somehow found ways to pay their bills. Only 4 percent of the city’s residents are dealing with lasting suspensions.
What is wrong with expecting customers to pay their bills? Nothing. In fact, Detroit is being quite lenient: If residents can’t pay their bills, they can call the department to find out if they qualify for the donor-funded Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program.On August 7, Mayor Mike Duggan released a 10-part plan to ensure that assistance is accessible to residents.
Additionally, civil society has stepped up to help customers such as Belinda S., a mother of five who can’t pay her water bill but refuses to illegally have her water turned back on. Forming a creative free-market solution, Tiffani Ashley Bell and Kristy Tillman launched the nonprofit Detroit Water Project, an online portal that raised $15,000 in its first five days and has 7,000 anonymous donors helping pay impoverished residents’ water bills. This demonstrates one of America’s great qualities: the generosity of private citizens.
Another resource is the Water Access Volunteer Effort (WAVE), a nonprofit organization that offers water payment support to needy Detroit residents. The fund has been around since 2003. Residents may receive WAVE assistance once a year for up to 50 percent of their bills. This program encourages self-sufficiency through a “utility budget payment plan, utility efficiency education counseling, or other programs.”
Detroit’s dilemma raises the important question of how to help impoverished Americans effectively. Any effort to help the poor should encourage self-sufficiency for those who are able. Some individuals may simply be down on their luck and need temporary assistance. For others, overcoming an addiction or gaining better job skills may empower them to work.
The government welfare system—which includes 80 different federally operated means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to the poor—also needs reform. The vast majority of these programs often end up discouraging self-sufficiency, as explained in Heritage’s 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity.
Americans are generous in seeking to help their neighbors, as the Detroit Water Project and WAVE demonstrate. Helping individuals become self-sufficient, whenever possible, should be the guiding principle of the social safety net.
Kayla Murrish is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, pleaseclick here.