Low-income, Minority Families Spend More on Bottled Water Due to Poor Water Infrastructure, Advertising

by Shealeigh

Bottled water is the nation’s #1 bottled beverage. The average cost of bottled water consumption for a family of four, with the assumption that each person drinks 47 gallons a year, is between $250 to $2,700 a year. The tap water equivalent cost is 23.5 cents per person. As highlighted by CounterPunch in November 2023, low-income families spend more on bottled water than other households, according to a Consumer Reports survey from 2019.

Households that earn less than $25,000 a year spend around $15 a month on single-use water bottles. Households with an annual income of between $25,000 and $49,000 spend $12 a month, and households earning above $50,000 spend $10 a month. 

The Consumer Reports survey found that Black households spent an average of $19 a month on bottled water, Hispanic households spent $18, and white households spent $9. 

Other research has found that adults with higher incomes drank more tap water than bottled water. Most of the water consumed by Black and Hispanic households, immigrants, and those with less than a high school degree is bottled water. 

In 2017, US Gallup conducted a poll that found that 80 percent of nonwhite respondents are concerned about drinking polluted water. Fifty-six percent of white respondents also shared that concern. When looking at socioeconomic status, 75 percent of those making less than $50,000 were worried about consumption of water pollution compared to 56 percent percent of those earning over $75,000.

These discrepancies in public opinion reflect how low-income households have been disproportionately impacted by the worsening of US public water infrastructure. 

Health scholar Asher Rosinger indicated that “higher-income adults drink bottled water for convenience, whereas lower-income adults may drink bottled water because of tap water access issues.” Bottled water companies have been known to target their advertising in Black and Hispanic communities for this reason. 

This issue is linked with economic and environmental injustice because there are areas—notably, Flint, Michigan—where tap water is undrinkable due to industrial contamination or water system failure. Therefore, some households may be paying double for water because they pay a monthly water bill, despite not drinking their tap water, in addition to purchasing bottled water to drink.

In 2015, CounterPunch found that for those households paying double, costs amounted to around $1,000 to $5,000 per year to fulfill both drinking and cooking needs with bottled water. This can reach up to 12 percent of a household’s income for poor families in the US.

As Jafee explained in his article, “The social groups who on average can least afford to pay for a constant supply of bottled water are precisely those who tend to trust their tap water the least, who are targeted by the industry’s advertising, and who spend the highest percentage of household income to buy packaged water.”

There has been no corporate media coverage about the disproportionate costs of bottled water for low-income and minority households. However, CNN and AP News both recently reported on the Biden administration using $58 billion of federal funds for water infrastructure improvements across the country.

Source: Daniel Jaffee, “The Real Cost of Bottled Water,” CounterPunch.org, November 30, 2023. 

Student Researcher: Olivia Rosenberg (North Central College) 

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)