Drinking Water and Environmental Justice in Post-Flint America: How Water Tests Increase Public Welfare

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Department of Applied Economics and Statistics, University of Delaware, Newark, DE.
In 2016, Flint, Michigan declared a State of Emergency due to high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. Flint is predominantly black or African-American and the average income is significantly below the U.S. average. Extensive media coverage about these events may have adversely affected water quality perceptions in similarly disadvantaged communities but whose public drinking water systems have no outstanding violations. We conducted experiments in such a community to explore how individuals perceive their own drinking water and tests the effectiveness of two water quality treatments (water test kit and professional laboratory test). After collecting water samples from each participants home, these experiments revealed that the average willingness-to-accept to drink three ounces of their own water was $9.57. After treatment, their average willingness-to-accept was as low as $2.88. We show that inexpensive water test kits can be leveraged to rebuild trust in public water systems and enhance the welfare of disadvantaged communities.
Experimental economics, Field experiments, Drinking water utilities, Water testing, Environmental justice