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  • Writer's pictureTiana Starks

Beyond Discounts: Understanding the Real Difference Between Water Affordability and Assistance

Updated: Jun 27

Water rates have skyrocketed over the past several decades. In some Michigan communities, residents pay upwards of 25% of their income to maintain their water services. You may have heard about water assistance programs, which have come and gone throughout the years. So the question remains: Why do bills remain unaffordable for many Michigan residents if assistance is available?

Contrary to popular belief, water affordability and water assistance are not interchangeable terms. So what are the differences between affordability and assistance? Let’s jump into it.

Water assistance plans often come in the form of discounts or other payment assistance. While water assistance can help lower bills or contribute to bill payments, the core issue is that the bills are still too expensive to afford. Assistance programs can be useful to households with a temporary need for assistance, such as residents facing unemployment or a medical emergency. However, assistance is not a long-term solution to households facing chronic poverty. Water assistance programs in Michigan have proven to be ineffective in making bills affordable and lifting those most impacted out of debt.

So what is the solution? We must have affordable bills. Water affordability means that utilities are pricing a household's water bill in a way that does not prevent continued access to water and sanitation nor pose an obstacle to affording other essential expenses. Affordable water means bills can be paid in full, on time, and do not incur compounding debt. Bill and debt assistance and volumetric water pricing - are not water affordability plans. True water affordability must:

  • Ensure Universal Access: Guarantee that every individual has access to clean, safe, and affordable water

  • Implement Income-Based Rates: Mandate that water systems apply income-based rates to eligible customers capped at 3% of income, making certain that everyone pays a bill they can afford, including tenants

  • Restrict Water Shutoffs: Limit instances in which water utilities can disconnect a customer's water service

  • Facilitate Debt Forgiveness: Provide a process for customers to receive forgiveness of their water debt

Water affordability plans account for a household’s ability to pay and provide a consistent monthly bill based on a household’s income. To achieve water affordability it requires systemic changes in the way that water and sanitation services are funded and operated. That is precisely what we are fighting for at the WEL Coalition.

Here’s the bottom line- Assistance is only a band-aid solution to unaffordable rates. Ensuring that bills are affordable creates a situation in which all Michiganders thrive.

Want to be a part of the solution? Visit to learn more about the Water Equals Life Coalition and the Water Affordability Platform. Together, we can make a difference and ensure clean, safe, and affordable water for all.

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