Last fall, Cambridge University Press released Associate Professor Manny Teodoro’s new book, “The Profits of Distrust,” which explores the relationship between public services like drinking water and confidence in government. Teodoro co-authored the book with Samantha Zuhlke (University of Iowa) and David Switzer (University of Missouri).
The authors examine a vicious cycle of drinking water failures and public distrust that allows commercial firms to profit from consumers’ distrust of public water services. When people experience failures of basic public services, they learn to distrust the government and then seek solutions to their service problems from private, commercial firms. This “exit” from public services reduces incentives for the government to provide quality services, which places a heavier financial burden on consumers, who disproportionately come from poor and racial/ethnic minority communities.
“A central tenet of liberal democracy—arguably the central tenet—is that governments get their legitimacy by providing for their people’s basic needs, and they lose their legitimacy when people no longer believe that government can ensure those basics,” says Teodoro. “That’s not a new idea; it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. You don’t get more basic than water, so it’s no wonder that civilizations throughout history have invested heavily in water infrastructure.”
So why do so many people, presented with a choice between commercial and government suppliers, tend to opt for bottled water, which is loosely regulated and much more expensive than tap water? The authors found that perceived tap water quality is the single strongest predictor of bottled water consumption. Teodoro calls this concept “performative trust”: the idea that a good experience with a product or service builds trust in the organization that provided it and bad experiences reduce trust in the same way. If people have experienced unsafe tap water, they are not likely to trust tap water in the future.
But perhaps the bigger issue is that events like the water crises in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi have changed the perception of drinking water safety well beyond the borders of the municipality or the state. Even people who have never personally experienced water quality failure have started to distrust tap water. “Profits of Distrust” points to evidence that bottled water consumption is higher among lower-income households, even though they have the most trouble affording it, and that Hispanics and Blacks are more likely to use bottled water than other groups, even after adjusting for age, education, and income. Teodoro and his coauthors argue that this disparity follows past public water crises that have disproportionately affected low-income, Black, and/or Hispanic households. The rise of commercial water kiosks in American cities, which dispense drinking water in exchange for payment and tend to be located within lower-income areas, has also contributed to this disparity.
On the other hand, Teodoro and his co-authors argue, the availability of reliable public services builds citizens’ trust in government. In order to earn back the trust of its citizens, the government must provide services that meet people’s basic needs in a way that is transparent and equitable. The book outlines 12 proposals to reach this goal for the water sector specifically, including consolidation of water utility services, implementation of regulations, investing in infrastructure, and the implementation of water system report cards.
Teodoro’s interest in researching water utility management and policy was sparked during his time in his MPA program, working under his advisor Richard Schuler, who was a civil engineer, economist, and former public service commissioner in New York. When Teodoro entered the workforce, he joined an economics firm in Seattle where most of his clients were water and sewer utilities in the Western U.S. “It’s endlessly fascinating,” notes Teodoro. “Nothing that government does is more important than water regulation and provision.”
Teodoro works at the intersection of politics, public policy, and public management. His research focuses on U.S. environmental policy and implementation, including empirical analyses of environmental justice. Teodoro will chair the 2023 La Follette Forum, which will focus on how government response and services can strengthen American trust in government.