Infrastructure deficit catching up with U.S.
Is the United States becoming a place where you don’t dare to drink the water? Consider the following:
According to the New York Times, a significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country. In the nation’s capital, there is a pipe break every day on average. And this weekend, severe rains flooded the system, causing untreated sewage to flow into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Since 2004, the Times reports, more than 49 million Americans have been exposed to water with “illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.”
Some 19 million Americans become ill each year due to parasites, viruses and bacteria in drinking water, according to the Times article.
Since 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3 million Americans have been exposed to illegal concentrations of arsenic and radioactive elements linked to cancer. More than a quarter of those systems violating arsenic or radioactivity standards have never been contacted by a regulator.
This is a right-now, real-life health care crisis. Many of our sewers were built around the time of the Civil War. They have been starved for funds for years, as political leaders choose to live with breakdowns, patches and repairs to avoid the big-time costs of replacement. In the three decades of conservative domination of our national politics, federal funding wasn’t adequate. Worse, federal enforcement of the Clean Water Act declined with the general assault on regulation. New EPA head Lisa P. Jackson announced an overhaul of enforcement, but this comes after years of neglect.
“There is significant reluctance within the EPA and Justice Department to bring actions against municipalities,” the Times quotes David Uhlmann, who served as head of the Justice Department’s environmental crimes division in the last administration, “because there’s a view that they are often cash-strapped.”
And that was before the Great Recession.
Dangerous water is only one part of our crushing and costly public investment deficit. A bridge falls in America every other day. Our trains now ship goods more slowly than they did decades ago. Many of our schools are in such disrepair that they are dangerous to the health of their students.
This is the result of a continued assault on the public sphere. Public schools, public health care, public parks and roads, the post office — all are denigrated. The wealthy buy their way out with gated communities, private mail delivery, private resorts and private schools. Working and poor people have no way out.
This deficit isn’t because America is poor, although poverty is increasing. It comes from perverted priorities. The Iraq War, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz tells us, will end up costing about $3 trillion. We spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on our military every year. We spend more to defend South Korea than the South Koreans do. As Warren Buffett reports, the wealthiest Americans pay a lower tax rate than their chauffeurs. Over the past decades, taxes have been cut on private speculation, much of which ships jobs and money abroad, rather than devoted to public investment that would create jobs and 21st century infrastructure here.
One thing is clear: If we want to build a new economy that can sustain a broad middle class and provide Americans who work hard with the opportunity to reach the American dream, then we have to invest in our future. If not, the U.S. will continue the path it has been on, becoming a nation of greater inequality, greater poverty, with declining wages. It’s a big and beautiful country. We’ll still be a good cheap place to visit, only the streets will grow more dangerous and you wouldn’t want to drink the water.