It also raises some serious questions about what living in a civilized democracy means.
Take the case of water service for residents of the city. Detroit is undergoing serious austerity measures in an effort to right its finances and emerge from bankruptcy. It has slashed services, reduced pensions, and considered selling off the Detroit Institute of Art's collection. And it has at times cut off water services to residents more than two months delinquent on their bills.
There's an obvious logic to this: If you don't pay your bills, you don't get services, and the city can hardly afford to forgo a single dollar given its fiscal problems. Yet there are good reasons why residents might fail to pay for even this most basic of needs. Unemployment rates inside the city hover at nearly 25 percent. From 2008 to 2012, more than 38 percent of residents lived below the poverty level. Meanwhile, the bills are growing, as the city has jacked water rates up by 8.7 percent in an attempt to compensate for crumbling infrastructure.
On Monday, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation issued a scathing statement against the shutoffs:
Without water, people cannot live a life with dignity—they have no water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing toilets and keeping their clothes and houses clean. Despite the fact that water is essential for survival, the city has no data on how many people have been and are living without tap water, let alone information on age, disabilities, chronic illness, race or income level of the affected population.
Denial of access to sufficient quantity of water threatens the rights to adequate housing, life, health, adequate food, integrity of the family. It exacerbates inequalities, stigmatizes people and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless. Lack of access to water and hygiene is also a real threat to public health as certain diseases could widely spread.
In addition, the report says many shutoffs are in error, but there's no good way to dispute them. It sounds like the U.S. media's worst caricatures of the developing world. Yet residents also told the UN they were worried child-protective services would take their children. Which seems like a cruel irony: The government is present enough to take your kids, but not to help you get water.