Census: Plumbing a Luxury for Some
by Mark Niesse - Associated Press Writer - July 4, 2002
MOUNT WILLING, Ala. -- Several times a day, Gennie McMeans fills a bucket with water from the spigot outside his rickety plywood house, hauls it to the kitchen and heats it on the stove.
Occasionally, he'll fill a wash pail with the heated water for a hand-scrubbed bath among a couple dozen goats and horses.
"We get it real hot, but it takes a while," he said. "I take a bath three or four times a week. Oh, it would make it so much easier if I had water inside."
It was just two or three years ago McMeans even got a spigot. Before then, he'd carry water from a well for everything from washing clothes to cooking dinner.
McMeans, 73, who lives about 40 miles southwest of the state capital Montgomery, is one of a shrinking number of people who still have no indoor plumbing, no hot and cold water, no bath or shower, according to Census 2000 data.
Most are elderly, poor and living in rural areas.
Nationwide, about 50,000 fewer households lacked complete plumbing in 2000 than in 1990, dropping from 721,693 homes (0.78 percent), to 670,986 homes (0.64 percent).
Alaska led the nation in both counts, with 13,489 homes in 1990 without complete plumbing, or 7.1 percent, and 14,003 in 2000, or 6.3 percent.
By region, the South had the highest rate without toilets and tubs. In 1990, nine of 15 states with the worst plumbing facilities were in the South. In 2000, the number dropped to five.
Alabama's Black Belt, the south-central region known for its dark soil and impoverished history, is slowly casting off its rustic inconveniences along with much of the rural South. But some houses wouldn't look out of place if they existed a century ago.
McMeans said he wants to finish building an indoor bathroom and run the outside water lines through it.
But until then, he'll do without, walking down a dirt path into the woods to take care of business. At night, he sits inside on a toilet lid propped up over a bucket, rather than venturing out.
"They got some rattlesnakes back there," McMeans said. "I got that bucket inside. I sit on it and put it outside in the morning."
To brush his few remaining teeth, McMeans just gets a toothbrush and stands outside next to the running spigot.
"The biggest thing I've been brushing is my gums," he joked.
According to Don Bogie, director of the Auburn University Montgomery Center for Cultural and Demographic Research, there are two main reasons more people have gotten plumbing since 1990.
Poor people increasingly are moving into trailer homes, which come with a commode installed, he said. And county governments have managed to provide water lines to outlying areas that previously were beyond reach.
"Rural water availability has improved dramatically over the last few years," said Pres Allinder, director of environmental services for the Alabama health department. "The funding has been there to build these systems and reach out where they weren't before."
Even places such as Gees Bend in Wilcox County, one of the nation's poorest, have running water and toilets.
Sharon Kennedy remembers the not-so-distant past -- five years ago -- when she was one of those who did without.
"The bath water, you had to run it back and forth, you had to heat it. It was hard," said Kennedy. "Now we don't have a problem with water around here."
Those still without probably don't know what they're missing, living in the secluded countryside in homes that have been in the their family for decades, Bogie said.
"When you're not exposed to anything else, you don't know how good life can be when you have that indoor facility," said Bogie, who used an outhouse when he was a child in Kentucky. "It was like living in hell."