Pockets of Populations Living Without Basic Plumbing


The United States is, for the most part, a relatively wealthy, developed nation. And most Americans live in the kind of housing structures you'd expect to find in a relatively wealthy, developed nation: the kind with indoor plumbing. Ever since the Great Depression and the housing crisis it caused, the U.S. Census Bureau has been compiling data on the types of houses Americans live in: when they were built, how much they cost, and other information that allows the government to assess the quality of the country's housing stock. To the Census Bureau, a house with "complete plumbing facilities" is one that has hot and cold running water, a bathtub or shower, and a toilet that flushes. More than 99 percent of the country's occupied households have complete plumbing facilities.

But over 1.5 million Americans don't. To find out who they are and where they live, we looked at data from the 2013 American Community Survey, one of the methods the Census Bureau uses to track housing statistics. We looked at the survey results on the census tract level, and we tried to identify geographic regions where lots of homes were lacking plumbing.

Households Without Plumbing

In a large majority of census tracts, every single household has complete plumbing facilities. But you'll notice that there's quite a tail to this distribution. At the very end, with the lowest plumbing rates in the U.S., is the area surrounding Bethel, Alaska. Here, only about 34% of households have complete plumbing facilities.

With over 2000 total households and an average of 4.61 people living in each, that accounts for more than 6000 people without indoor plumbing.

Bethel Alaska

Census Tract 1, Bethel Census Area, Alaska

There’s actually quite a bit of Alaska where plumbing rates are significantly lower than in the rest of the country—especially in a region of Alaska called the Unorganized Borough. This is an expansive swath of land, larger than the state of Texas, that isn’t contained in any of Alaska’s other boroughs. (Alaska is the only state to have boroughs instead of counties.) The Unorganized Borough isn’t very densely populated, but over 80,000 people do live there. Many are Alaska Natives.

Plumbing Usa Map 1

In the 1930s and 1940s, the country began to adopt standardized plumbing codes. Most houses built since then have included complete plumbing facilities. But if it were just a matter of when houses were built, the map shouldn’t look like this. Most pre-1949 housing is concentrated in New England and the Midwest; the majority of Alaska’s existing homes were built after 1970. In the Bethel census tract above, the median year housing units were built was 1982. For some reason, new units were built without complete plumbing facilities.

That swath of northeast Arizona looks interesting. Here’s a census tract-level zoom on the Southwest.


If you’re familiar with the geography of Indian reservations, this shape should remind you of something: Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States. 

Sidebyside 1024X466

Left: map of low plumbing census tracts in the Southwest. Right: map overlaid with borders of Indian reservations. Major overlap occurs for Navajo Nation, Hopi Nation, White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Tribe territories, Tohono O’odham Nation, and others.​

In fact, many reservation households lack plumbing, not just in the Southwest. In South Dakota, Shannon County (recently renamed Oglala Lakota County) is home to over 13,000 people; most are Oglala Lakota. Around 14 percent of households there are lacking plumbing facilities. The national average is under 1 percent.

To explore the data for yourself, here’s a map with a layer overlay of Indian reservations. Or hop over to Enigma Public and take a look at the tables.