3. The New Yorker: The Heavy Toll of the Black Belt’s Wastewater Crisis
I got into an argument with a friend from Mexico a few years ago about poverty in America. She was arguing that America didn’t have poverty—“real poverty”—like Mexico had. I wasn’t interested in playing oppression olympics with her, especially on an international level, but I strongly communicated to her that America did have “real poverty,” citing the south, Appalachia, Flint, and other places in the country that have been neglected and left in pervasive poverty.
In Alabama’s Black Belt, “named for its rich, dark topsoil, which in the years before the Civil War made cotton the state’s main source of wealth,” 8 percent of residents are not on a municipal sewer line and must “invest in a private waste-management system,” according to state law. These waste-management systems can cost upwards of $20,000, which is cost-prohibitive to many residents. Instead, many people use “a pipe to empty waste into the grass outside—a practice, called straight-piping, that is not uncommon in much of rural America… Floods carry sewage across people’s lawns and into their living areas, bringing with it the risk of viruses, bacteria, and parasites that thrive in feces. Studies have found E. coli and fecal coliform throughout the Black Belt, in wells and in public waters. A United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty, visiting in 2017, said that the sewage problem was unlike anything else he had encountered in the developed world.” Unsurprisingly, these residents experience higher rates of various health issues including higher COVID-19 infection rates.
Of course, all of this is also linked to racism as “The best land in Lowndes County,” part of the Black Belt, “has always been owned by white folks, from slavery through the present,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor at Ohio State University. Poverty in America is very real.