In Their Own Words: Water If You’re Wealthy Enough to Afford It

An interview with UUSC Researcher Amber Moulton

In the following interview, Amber Moulton, researcher in UUSC’s Programs, Advocacy, and Action Department, previews UUSC’s upcoming research survey on water affordability.

Why did UUSC choose to focus on water affordability in the upcoming research survey?

Affordability is one of the five main pillars of the human right to water, and it’s one of the biggest challenges to the human right to water in the United States. As Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, noted in her 2011 visit to the United States, the United States has done a substantially better job of providing people with clean, safe water than it has providing people with equitable access to affordable water.

The anecdotal evidence and the few studies that have been done on water affordability are really shocking. Roger Colton, one of our partners, has done a California-wide study that showed that if you were to take the standard for affordability, which is essentially 4% of the median household income in an area, and then look at the lowest part of the income spectrum, you find that there are people in some counties who would be paying up to 19% of their household income for their water bill. If you look at an average water bill for a family of four in U.S. major cities, you can do a very simple calculation using the federal poverty level and find that 15% of the population is very likely struggling to pay their water bill — and this is something that is absolutely essential to human life.

What is currently considered affordable is actually extremely inequitable for people in the two lower quintiles of the income spectrum. This is essentially what this water report is about: the problem of saying that you can be healthy, you can have the dignity associated with hygiene only if you’re wealthy enough to afford it. That’s unacceptable. We need to be recognizing water as a human right.

Has the research uncovered any effects of water unaffordability that might surprise people?

One of the things that can happen when people can’t pay their water bill is that their water will be shut off. When people have their water shut off, it makes their homes legally uninhabitable. That can factor into the state’s decisions to remove children and put them into foster care. Sadly and ironically, the system doesn’t currently subsidize or help families who need financial help to pay their bills, but it subsidizes the bills of a foster family. So, it can tear children apart from their parents.

It also has major health consequences. One of the things we saw in the mass water shutoffs in Detroit was that people who had catastrophic and chronic illness, including illnesses where they needed water for their treatment, were cut off from water just like everyone else, without any data being collected about who needed water and who was particularly vulnerable.

In addition, there are any number of socially significant ways that health and hygiene are affected. So if you don’t have water — and we’ve seen specific cases of this in Detroit — you might stop cooking certain types of food that are significant in your culture, like pasta or rice, that use more water. You have people who can’t take showers and baths regularly, and of course there is social stigma that goes with that in workplaces and schools. Plus, women who are experiencing their period certainly also have a particular need for water.

And believe it or not, there’s also the risk of criminalization in many places. In Detroit, we found that people who turned their water back on can actually be charged with a crime. So those are some of the things we’re talking about when it comes to water unaffordability: You can lose your ability to live in your home, you can lose your children, you can lose your freedom.

You’ve mentioned Detroit. Where else is this happening?

We’ve seen mass water shutoffs recently in Baltimore, but this is actually standard operating procedure in many places — shutting off water is not banned. There are particularly egregious examples — communities where people in the lowest quintile of the income spread might be paying 20% of their income for water — but it really is happening throughout the United States. People who are hooked up to small water systems, with less than 100,000 people, as well as people in the largest metropolitan systems can be facing very unaffordable bills.

Certainly anyone who lives below the poverty threshold — or even twice that threshold — very likely is experiencing a struggle when it comes to paying their water bills. And often this is exacerbated by historical trends and trends in austerity measures — like the emergency management policy in Michigan — that are particularly disenfranchising low-income communities of color.

What are some of the recommendations that have come out of your analysis?

There is exciting new national water affordability legislation that will be proposed by NACLAWater [National Coalition for Legislation on Water Affordability], which UUSC is part of. The proposed legislation will push the need to create real means of water affordability in the United States. In addition, there’s the immediate need for mass water shutoffs to be discontinued and prohibited in the future. We also want to push for water policies that bill families based on actual household income, which could include creating rate structures that provide discounts for low-income people or instituting a cap of 2.5% of monthly household income for all services. We also want decriminalization, protections for vulnerable populations, and comprehensive data collection.

Stay tuned for UUSC’s water affordability report! In the meantime, take action by calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to include affordable water in the White House Climate Action Plan.

Syrian Refugee Crisis: Situation, Strategy, Partners, and Advocacy

As the conflict in Syria continues to rage unabated, the needs of refugees who have been displaced by the conflict remain acute. Yet despite the internationally-protected human right of these refugees to flee and seek asylum, host countries refuse to recognize them as full members of their societies, and many European nations have adopted closed border policies that intensifies the crisis. The need to respond compassionately to this situation is as urgent as ever.

Thanks to the generosity of so many people, we have so far raised more than $610,000 for the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund. With these resources, UUSC is working with grassroots partners in Jordan, the Balkans and the United States, providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception.

The situation

Five years into Syria’s devastating civil war, half the country’s population remains displaced from their homes, with over 4.8 million Syrians forced to seek refuge abroad. While a partial ceasefire was brokered in February between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and some rebel groups, fighting continues among several other major parties to the conflict, including the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire continue to flee atrocities committed by state and non-state actors and the constant threat of violence from extremist groups.

In some respects, the situation for refugees is worse than ever before. Whereas earlier waves of Syrian refugees were generally able to cross the border and seek asylum abroad, newly displaced Syrians are encountering closed borders and tight restrictions on their movement on all sides. While Syria’s closest neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, had maintained a relatively open border in the early years of the conflict, all three have now effectively closed their borders to asylum seekers – due in large part to the failure of wealthier governments to step in to fill the gaps by adequately funding the humanitarian response and expanding their resettlement programs. Turkish border guards in some cases have actually gunned down Syrian asylum seekers who tried to cross the border.[1] The result is that more than 150,000 civilians fleeing ISIS are now trapped in the desert outside the Turkish border,[2] where they face the constant threat of airstrikes or of falling into the hands of armed rebel groups.

With no clear end to the violence in sight, the nearly five million Syrian refugees living abroad have effectively become permanent residents of the societies they inhabit. Host governments in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, however, continue to maintain the pretense that these refugees are merely temporary “guests” who should not be integrated into society or granted the full rights of citizens. Because of this, Syrian refugees are for the most part forced to live in the shadows. Denied formal permission to work and other basic rights, they must subsist on vanishing cash allowances from international organizations or eke out a living in the informal sector. The extreme financial vulnerability of refugee families has led to skyrocketing rates of child labor and other forms of exploitation, as well as to the loss of an entire generation of Syrian children from institutions of formal education.

The shameful conduct of host countries toward refugees, however, is only a foreseeable consequence of the policy choices of wealthier countries. At the start of this year, the European Union made an agreement with Turkey that has exacerbated the crisis. In exchange for returning refugees from Europe to Turkey and the nominal loosening of some of Turkey’s restrictions against refugees, European governments have effectively turned their back on the thousands of refugees trapped at Turkey’s borders or suffering exclusion in Turkish society.

After this bargain went into effect, Europe’s previously open reception centers in Greece and the Balkans were converted into closed detention camps, where refugees are effectively imprisoned while they await possible deportation to Turkey, and where violence against migrants is well-documented.

The United States, meanwhile, has done next to nothing to ameliorate the situation. The U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, despite a commitment to resettle 10,000 this fiscal year. What’s more, the U.S. is in the throes of a terrifying anti-immigrant and Islamophobic backlash that jeopardizes the safety of Muslims living in the U.S. and threatens to amend the current refugee program to include overt racial and religious discrimination.

The strategy

UUSC addresses human rights violations against refugees and asylum seekers that are fueled by xenophobic attitudes, short-sighted immigration controls, and nationalistic policies. In whatever context we work, UUSC commits ourselves to the principles that migration is not a crime and seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. UUSC continues to affirm this truth as it pursues a multifaceted strategy in addressing the crisis at home and abroad:

  • Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: offering medical aid, mental health support, resettlement support, and more aid? to long-term refugees.
  • Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: providing legal assistance and awareness training, reunifying family members and assisting refugees in navigating the resettlement processes, including how to challenge discriminatory treatment.
  • Advocacy in Europe and the United States: raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation, and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.

The partners

Greece: ensuring decent reception conditions
UUSC has been partnering with the Greek non-governmental organization PRAKSIS to provide immediate transportation assistance and basic needs kits to newly arrived refugees and their children on the Greek island of Lesvos.

Serbia: providing comprehensive mobile assistance along the transit route
The Asylum Protection Center (APC), our partner in Serbia, enlists a team of aid professionals to provide a comprehensive array of services, including legal support, humanitarian aid, psychosocial counseling, and language interpretation, to long-term and transiting refugees.

Croatia: offering support for long-term resettlement
UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (CPS), which spearheads the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 organizations to address refugee resettlement, to provide immediate humanitarian support, and to advocate for more welcoming policies at the national and international levels.

Hungary: facilitating family reunification
With our support, our partners at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) are working to provide full financial and legal support for refugee families who have been torn apart by war and are navigating the family reunification process.

Slovenia: providing humanitarian protection at the Croatia-Serbia border

Magna Children at Risk, a UUSC partner, operates medical humanitarian projects — including medical, surgery, psychological, and nutritional programs for children and their families —in two refugee camps at the Croatia-Serbia border.

Jordan: challenging refugee exploitation through legal trainings and assistance
The Arab Renaissance for Democracy (ARDD) — Legal Aid is raising legal awareness and empowerment through trainings and research to help Syrian refugees in Jordan navigate the risks they face due to discrimination, lack of formal recognition, and heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

United States: promoting positive dialogue, refugee integration, and a more welcoming public policy
In Southern California, the Arab American Civic Council is launching, with UUSC support, a “Refugees Welcome” initiative that supports the resettlement and integration of Syrian refugees. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) is working to improve public policy related to refugees in Massachusetts. In Indiana, UUSC is partnering with Refugee Exodus to provide critical care to Syrian refugees while also practically confronting anti-refugee political agendas that caused Refugee Exodus a loss of vital funding. In Toledo, Ohio, UUSC is partnering with US Together to help newly arrived refugee families resettle with dignity in the United States and build their new lives in this country.

The advocacy

Through national policy advocacy, an integrated communications plan, and mobilizing UU congregations and activists, UUSC has been working to increase federal humanitarian assistance for refugees, to increase the U.S. refugee quota, and to forestall any attempt from politicians to introduce religious or ethnic discrimination into the refugee program, and to promote a welcoming environment for all refugees and asylum seekers. 

Key highlights:

  • Releasing “Building Bridges: Refugee Support and Advocacy Toolkit” – a resource for congregations, student groups, and individuals to take action on refugee rights.
  • Launching the Refugee Rapid Response Network to mobilize quickly and effectively around national and state-level legislation on refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Partnering with members and congregations to organize events such as the Monte Vista UU Congregation’s Refugee Welcoming Lunch, data parties with the Arab American Civic Council to develop a welcome guide for new Americans, and Know Your Rights trainings for Central American asylum-seekers with local congregations and RAICES.
  • Presenting in large-scale UU settings such as the Annual General Assembly and the Walking the Walk Justice Summit of the UU Justice Ministry of California and the UU Justice Arizona Network.
  • Mobilizing, through our work with the Ministerial Leadership Network and the Unitarian Universalists Ministerial Association, more than 600 Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign onto an open letter from faith leaders to Donald Trump calling upon him to retract his call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
  • Connecting Unitarian Universalists to interfaith initiatives and events to welcome refugees as part of the Refugees Welcome Coalition.



2015 Highlights

Thanks to the support of advocates for justice like you, UUSC has relentlessly pursued justice and the advancement of a host of human rights over the past year. UUSC partners with locally led grassroots organizations that have deep connections to individuals and communities facing vast violations of their rights due to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, refugee status, and other aspects of who they are. Together, UUSC and these partners work to end entrenched systemic inequality and social, political, and economic exclusion, often in the midst of rapidly evolving humanitarian crises.

Check out our 2015 highlights below and please make a gift to ensure this work continues in 2016! You can also click here to download a PDF of 2015 annual report.

Promoting economic justice

  • Supported national day of action in solidarity with Darden restaurant workers by rallying local ministers and UU advocacy networks in California and Maryland
  • Filed a shareholder resolution at Darden that would require greater transparency and accountability concerning Darden’s political spending at local, state, and federal levels
  • Benefitted 5,000 people directly and 15,000 people indirectly, all in the informal economy, through leadership development, capacity building, and awareness raising about the rights of people with disabilities
  • Supported the creation and distribution of a comic book to educate youth and adults about food chain workers
  • Supported training for 500 restaurant workers, an expanded network of 200 responsible restaurant employers, and three new training facilities for U.S. restaurant workers
  • Initiated series of trainings that will each empower 36 workers to advocate for the Good Food Purchasing Policy, which benefits low-income students and senior citizens
  • Petitioned the Darden restaurant group, pressuring them to adopt the Good Food Purchasing Policy principles in their food procurement

Protecting rights at risk

  • Responding to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe
  • Partnered with the Trauma Resource Institute (TRI) to train nearly 900 people in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan in teaching and leading more than 5,000 others in trauma resiliency skills
  • Trained agrarian reform communities in the Philippines on organic farming and livestock raising
  • Completed construction of a sixth eco-village in Haiti as well as the first phase of a school for children of the eco-villages
  • Continued supporting the Urban Food Gardens project in Haiti, which trained another 140 families to build food gardens
  • Celebrated the passage of the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act into law and gathered more than 800 supporter signatures for a thank-you to legislators
  • With more than 4,500 UUSC supporters, petitioned the Obama administration to release asylum-seeking children and their mothers from immigration detention and worked with partners to support these families
  • Provided assessment and services to 400 people with disabilities affected by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and ensured that disabled citizens had equitable access to relief materials
  • Provided temporary classrooms and supplies to enable 2,300 students to return to school following the Nepal earthquake
  • Mobilized community-based volunteers in Nepal to assist earthquake-affected communities, reaching 15 districts, 112 communities, and 23,271 households
  • In partnership with TRI, trained 92 frontline service providers in Nepal with the capacity to assist over 13,000 survivors with psychosocial support
  • Supported 200 farmers in Northern Shan state in Myanmar, also known as Burma, through a credit union project that reached 5,000 community member beneficiaries
  • Provided Rohingya refugee communities in Thailand with shelter, access to education, and other emergency support
  • Together with TRI in Turkey, trained nongovernmental organization workers in trauma resiliency skills to assist Syrian refugees, with an expected 800 beneficiaries
  • Supported a local foundation and community shelter in Burundi that provided assistance to women and children during the violence that erupted before the June elections
  • Working in tandem with the UU College of Social Justice, organized 17 volunteers who spent up to 1,880 hours assisting asylum-seeking families with a partner in Texas

Defending the human right to water

  • Participated in hearings on the human right to water held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • Facilitated a fact-finding visit to Detroit, Mich., by the U.N. special rapporteurs on the human rights to water and housing, with visits to families affected by water shutoffs
  • Supported a legal case in which the Mexican court ruled the city and country are required to fully implement the human right to water
  • Advocated for water affordability in Boston, Mass., where Mayor Marty Walsh announced a 30% discount on water rates for low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities
  • Participated in first-ever consultation on human rights and the environment held by the U.S. government and attended by several federal agencies
  • Organized more than 1,400 UUSC supporters to contact President Obama and urge him to veto approval of the Keystone XL pipeline

Responding to climate change

  • Collaborated with seven other organizations to form Commit2Respond, a coalition of people of faith and conscience taking action for climate justice
  • Raised more than $17,000 during Climate Justice Sunday to help communities in California and Kenya protect their human right to water
  • Took part in Commit2Respond’s Climate Justice Month, which succeeded in getting 3,200 individuals and more than 170 organizations and faith communities to join Commit2Respond

Facilitating transformative learning through the UU College of Social Justice

  • Conducted a total of 15 journeys — grounded in worship, study, and reflection — for congregations and individuals to Haiti, India, Mexico, and U.S. destinations, with 166 participants
  • Engaged 90 youth participants in Activate justice trainings for high school age students, including a program focused on climate justice
  • Adapted service-learning programs for youth groups in New York and at the U.S.-Mexico border
  • Placed 12 college-age young adults with justice organizations through an internship program, including four in India

Raising Up Workers in Massachusetts

Today I was at the Massachusetts State House with Alex Morash, UUSC's UUs Raise Up Massachusetts organizing consultant, and more than 150 other people from the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition. Together, we dropped off the 281,956 signatures collected to put questions about a higher minimum wage and earned sick time on the Massachusetts ballot in 2014.

This was a historic grassroots campaign for working families. It was made up of 4,795 volunteers across the state, including UUs from 30 cities and towns.

Not only did our efforts result in enough signatures to get these initiatives on the ballot, it also led to the Massachusetts Senate voting to pass legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2016 and tie future increases to the cost of living.

We're celebrating our victories today, but our work for over 1 million workers in Massachusetts is not done yet. We must continue to pressure the state legislature — particularly the House — to enact this legislation. If they fail to act, we will bring our cause straight to the voters of Massachusetts in November 2014.

Thank you to all who have been part of this incredible campaign and in advance for all that you will do to ensure that we pass minimum wage and earned sick time legislation in Massachusetts.