Fifty Years Without Running Water

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2004 was a big year in Coal Run. After half a century of discrimination, neglect, and bureaucratic runaround, the residents of the mostly-black neighborhood outside Zanesville, Ohio finally got running water. 2008 will be a landmark year too: earlier this month, a jury in the US District Court in Columbus found that racial discrimination lay behind the lack of services, and awarded the affected residents $15,000-$300,000 each.

You can read the details in the original lawsuit (.pdf), and I highly recommend doing so—it’s a case study in institutional racism. (During the trial, the town and county argued that they weren’t aware that residents didn’t have water, and that if they were aware, they weren’t sure who had jurisdiction over the neighborhood. That may have been true, but they were happy to charge black citizens up to ten times as much as their white peers to purchase water and haul it home in trucks.)

But as much as this is a story about race, it’s also a story about poverty, and how bureaucracy and greed work together to prevent poor people from accessing services that most of us take for granted. 22 percent of Zanesville’s residents live below the federal poverty level, including nearly a third of children under 18. Unemployment in Muskingum County, where Zanesville is located, runs at 7.4 percent—significantly higher than the national average. Only 11 percent of city residents have completed college. But just as it took Hurricane Katrina to alert America to the poverty of the Gulf Coast, Zanesville didn’t make national news until we heard of something so egregious that we couldn’t help but take notice.

Just a week before the District Court decision, Barack Obama spoke in Zanesville about his plan for faith-based organizations to help the country’s neediest people. That’s a start. But will his administration, or John McCain’s, undertake the task of reshaping this society into one that meets the basic needs of all its citizens, no matter how poor or out of the way?

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Andrew|W.

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