The Problem Upstream

I can pinpoint the exact moment my life changed.

It was 2002 and I was driving along a dirt road in rural Alabama not far from where I grew up.

I was on my way to visit Mattie and Odell McMeans who had been written up in the local daily newspaper Montgomery Advertiser because they were charged with a terrible crime. Their offense? Their septic system wasn’t working. Sure enough, as I approached the house, I saw raw sewage streaming alongside the road that led to their trailer.

The McMeans and their extended family of 18 were being threatened with eviction and criminal prosecution. The hardworking middle-aged couple were despondent. They simply couldn’t afford to replace their malfunctioning sewage treatment system.

It was the beginning of my education on failed sewage treatment systems, failed justice systems, failed public health systems, failed government infrastructure funding systems, and the list goes on.

Many people I speak with are surprised to learn that one-quarter of the world’s population doesn’t have safe sanitation.

Who Goes Without?

Many people I speak with are surprised to learn that one-quarter of the world’s population doesn’t have safe sanitation.

Many more are surprised to learn that most of my neighbors in Lowndes County, Alabama, are among those who “go” without.

By some estimates, 90% of Lowndes County families don’t have a functioning — or any — sewage system. Peek around the back of the tidy, modest homes here, and you’ll spy the telltale PVC pipe draining waste from homes into yards, pits, and nearby streams. Across Lowndes County, halfway between the cities of Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, rain regularly causes septic systems to overflow and contaminate drinking water. And one small study of affected residents found that 35% had hookworm — a dangerous parasite transmitted by poor sanitation thought to have been eliminated from the U.S. long ago.

These statistics might be more expected (though not excusable) in rural, war-ravaged communities in Angola or Afghanistan. But they apply to my corner of Alabama just the same.

Here’s what surprised me and changed the trajectory of my life: the government’s response to this crisis.

The Criminalization of Poverty

For years and until relatively recently, the state pursued criminal charges against people whose sanitation system was not functional or didn’t exist. Never mind that nearly one in four households here in Alabama’s Black Belt lives below the poverty line and can’t afford to fix or install a sanitation system — the cost of which easily rivals their annual income.

I started my efforts to address this problem by listening to experts. They said that my neighbors needed new sewage treatment systems. So, I raised money for the McMeans’ new sewage system and for other families in the community I learned had the same problem. Despite advice from experts, however, those expensive new sewage treatment systems failed within a couple of years. The experts said it was a lack of proper maintenance. They said that my neighbors were uneducated and didn’t know how to properly maintain their sewage systems.

Having grown up in the area, that just didn’t ring true. I could see my neighbors were being discounted and dismissed because they are low-income and Black.

I reassessed my strategy in consultation with my neighbors.

Here’s what I learned: No matter how these poor families scrimped and saved for new and improved sanitation systems, and no matter how hard they tried to keep those systems working, the systems failed in under three years. Existing sanitation systems simply didn’t function properly in
local conditions, which include waterlogged soil dense with clay minerals.

The same rich soil that made cotton king here generations ago, today bogs down the descendants of the cotton-picking slaves in its noxious muck. It poisons their drinking water. It infects their children. The health system’s response has been to call them ignorant, and the justice system’s response has been to criminalize their poverty. My neighbors were humiliated, pulled before the courts, packed off to jail, and evicted from their homes — all because they could not afford new sanitation systems that didn’t even work.

Lessons for Strategic Social Investors

Their experience provides five important lessons for strategic social investors:

  • Governments are slow to recognize when systems fail, especially when they fail people of color and the and low-income communities.
  • Governments are quick to criminalize the symptoms of poverty in communities of color. Remember the stories from the pandemic’s early days of New York City police handing out tickets in Black neighborhoods for failing to wear a mask, while on the other side of town, in White neighborhoods, police handed out free masks to anyone without?
  • Poverty is a wily foe. It not only undermines the health of hardworking families trying to get ahead, but also traps them in a vicious cycle that makes them poorer and puts them at odds with the very systems meant to help.
  • Experts are quick to step in and speak for local people. But when local people with lived experience are marginalized and discounted, it is easy for outsiders to come up with false solutions.
  • Overcoming these challenges requires collaboration across government and the private sector, with experts and locals working together to fix overlapping broken systems that compound each other and relegate communities to poverty. As climate change elevates sea levels, wastewater treatment system failures are increasingly common, creating greater urgency toward addressing this problem.

Layer Upon Layer of Injustice

That is what I’ve been working toward over the last 20 years — peeling back layer upon layer of government policy that, at best, ignores the challenges facing the low-income communities and, at worst, compounds those challenges. I have championed a response to this challenge, what I call America’s dirty little secret, that recognizes the overlapping systems that need to be fixed. This must be addressed as a public health issue, an environmental justice issue, a social justice issue, an income inequality issue — all of these issues intersect at wastewater. Working with the justice system to eliminate policies that criminalize families for being unable to afford wastewater treatment is just the start. We need to build bridges between state governments and local residents where environmental justice is centered. We need to engage communities and the private sector. We also need to address government infrastructure funding systems. These federal funding systems, ostensibly designed to support local development in disadvantaged areas, perversely require local matching funding — leaving the low-income areas in a Catch-22. They often do not have enough money to access the funding they need.

Even the infrastructure bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress earmarked for public works projects that redress structural racism, a step in the right direction, may not hit its mark. Do low-income communities have the staff to fill out the applications for this federal funding? Will states ensure that the money is spent as intended to help low-income communities of color? The historical record of the U.S. is not encouraging on this front. A study last year by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center and the University of Michigan found that many states were less likely to tap such funding on behalf of communities with larger minority populations.

We also need to harness and support the scientific community and private sector to develop effective low-cost models of wastewater treatment appropriate for local conditions.

Philanthropists have launched multimillion-dollar initiatives to design low-cost toilets and sewage treatment systems that function in low-income countries where water is scarce from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. U.S. government-funded research has helped NASA develop the technology to treat astronauts’ sewage in outer space.

Why not in my Lowndes County?