Christopher Irwin/Creative Commons License via Flickr

In America, being poor is expensive. Being poor and black is even more costly. A recent, must-read Chicago Tribune investigation illuminates precisely how by taking a look at one of the most basic human needs: water.

The Tribune analyzed how much different communities across the Chicago region were paying for water pumped from Lake Michigan and found that the median water bill for predominantly black communities was 20 percent higher than that of white communities for the same amount of water.

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Not only that, but the lowest-income communities also paid more, period, than the wealthiest. According to the Tribune’s findings, the Chicago area’s poorest communities were paying nearly a third more for water than the most affluent ones.

As Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental justice at Texas Southern University, told the paper, it’s a textbook example of environmental injustice.

“People who have the lowest amount of money are forced to pay the most for basic services,” Bullard said.

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The reason? Some community leaders told the Tribune that the high rates are because their residents have to pay for “significant amounts of water lost through cracked pipes and leaky hydrants.” Others explained that their decision to hike up rates was because they needed to replace poor infrastructure.

Only 13 percent of the communities surveyed by the Tribune for its investigation had a majority-black population. Still, of the 10 towns with the highest water rates, half of them were majority black.

The paper offered the following contrasts:

In Northfield, a high-income, predominantly white suburb, residents pay $36.34. In Posen, a majority-Latino south suburb where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, residents pay $64.60.

Residents of Glenwood, a lower-income, predominantly black community, pay $67.60. In the largely middle-income, predominantly white suburb of Willowbrook, residents pay $48.35.

And in Northbrook, a high-income, predominantly white community, residents pay less than $25. Consumers in Chicago Heights, a low-income, mixed-race community, pay nearly $36.

The findings are significant because not only are the rates for low-income residents greater than for high-income Chicago-area residents, but those water fees also take a bigger chunk out of their monthly living expenses.

As the paper notes, there is little accountability on the part of community leaders to fix the disproportionately high cost of water for black and lower-income Chicago residents: Illinois doesn’t regulate or set water rates, leaving that up to local officials. And as the Tribune details, two towns in the Chicago area have come under investigation for water mismanagement and fraud.

Read more at the Chicago Tribune.