How Unsafe Drinking Water Undermines Public Trust in Government

Half the Country Doesn’t Trust the Water that Comes Out of Their Tap.

Growing up in Western New York, I have vivid memories of playing outside on hot summer days. My brothers and I would race around our yard, pausing to take a drink from the garden hose. I never thought much about the water I was drinking. Or whether it was safe.

It wasn’t until I moved to Washington D.C. that I started paying attention. In 2004, the city was facing a water crisis—a change in water treatment chemicals released significant amounts of lead into the water supply. In two-thirds of the homes tested, lead levels in the water exceeded EPA limits. The DC water authority sent out a notification that we should avoid drinking unfiltered water. They also sent us a Brita pitcher and a couple filters.

A decade later, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan received national attention - and for good reason. But the lead problem in D.C was about 20-30 times worse. Neither were isolated.

The problem is national. A study by Consumer Reports tested drinking water at 120 different locations across the US for lead, arsenic, and PFAS, sometimes to referred to as forever chemicals. The report uncovered detectable levels of lead in the water at 118 of the 120 sites tested. And although lead levels varied across locations, no amount of lead exposure is safe.

It’s not just lead that’s the problem. The Washington Post recently reported on the ongoing health threats faced by residents of Jackson, Miss., where storms regularly flood homes and the water system with sewage.

“Earlier this year, some of the city’s 150,000 residents endured a month without drinking water following a harsh winter storm. But even in good times, few trust the gritty and often-discolored fluid that flows from their taps. Sewage, meanwhile, gets dumped by the billions of gallons into local rivers — or onto residents’ property.”

The CDC website boasts that “the United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world.” But this cheerful sentiment seems disconnected from the experiences of many Americans. A recent poll by the Survey Center on American Life found that close to half (47 percent) of the public said they would NOT be comfortable drinking unfiltered tap water in their home.

The situation is often worse in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, there are massive racial divides in the extent to which Americans trust their drinking water. Sixty-two percent of white Americans say they would be comfortable drinking their tap water, while only 30 percent of Black Americans would feel safe doing so.

But this isn’t a public health story, or rather, it’s not only a public health story. Instead, this is a story about the decline of public confidence in government. Americans do not trust their government. Public trust in government collapsed in the 1970s and never recovered. Today, less than a quarter of the public say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing. And the deterioration of our public infrastructure might be partly to blame.

Americans who trust their drinking water have far more confidence in local government than those who don’t. About two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans who would be very comfortable drinking unfiltered tap water say they trust their local government to do what’s right. Less than half (48 percent) who would be very uncomfortable drinking straight from the faucet express this level of confidence. 

It’s not the case that people who feel safe drinking their tap water are a more trusting bunch. Confidence in the federal government is low across the board regardless of how people feel about their tap water. We don’t have a trust crisis as much as a competence crisis.

Explanations for the decay of political trust lean heavily on the personal failings of individual politicians; their predictable self-serving behavior, occasional corruption, and fecklessness. Or, on problems endemic in the political system, such as rising political polarization. But the decline of public infrastructure and basic services are often missing from these analyses. Crumbling roads, trash-covered sidewalks, delayed mail delivery, underperforming schools, and corrupt or inefficient bureaucracies all serve as constant reminders that our government and public services are not working as they should.

If we want to restore trust in government and the political system—and there are lots of reasons why we should—a good place to start might be focusing on the activities that most affect everyday life. This is not a new idea, and others have articulated it in perhaps more memorable terms. In fact, when asked about what we can do to restore confidence in government, a respondent from a recent Pew survey replied: “Take small steps towards improving daily life, even if it’s just a trash pick-up. If people feel engaged with their environment and with each other, and they can work together even in a small way, I think that builds a foundation for working together on more weighty issues.”

Getting the basics right may not completely restore trust in government. Americans expect a lot from their government. And there are a lot of opportunities for government to fall short and disappoint. But if we trust government in a few essential areas—making sure the roads are paved, and our water is clean and schools are safe, it may provide opportunities for us to take on more complex issues together; this time with an appreciation that we’re all working towards the same goals.