Why Poor People Buy Bottled Water

During the past 15 years bottled water consumption in the United States has doubled— to an average of 30 gallons per person annually. And bottled water is no longer just for yuppies: consumption has skyrocketed among low-income individuals as well. At a time when food insecurity affects about 1 in 7 Americans, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, it may seem surprising to learn that many low-income individuals purchase a food item that is practically free, and one that some experts say is no safer than tap water. So why, then, do poor people buy bottled water?

The short answer is that poor people see it as healthy and affordable compared to other bottled beverages, according to my interviews with low-income Americans.

Natalie, a low-income woman, told me that her daughters are more likely to drink water from a bottle than a cup. “Even though it’s water, it’s something about those little bottles that they’re more apt to picking it up and drinking the whole thing.” Natalie, who wants her daughters to cut down on juice and sugary drinks, considers the money she pays for bottled water money well spent.

When people assess whether bottled water is affordable, they compare it to the other bottled drinks they typically buy—not to tap water. In light of this comparison, bottled water seems economical. Asked what she thought of drinking tap water and spending bottled-water money on food instead, Lauren, another low-income woman, replied, “You cannot beat $2.29 for 24 bottles.” To someone accustomed to paying $1.25 for two liters of soda and $3.29 for juice, $2.29 for 24 water bottles seems cheap as well as healthy.

In other words, people make food and beverage choices in relation to other food items. If we assume that the alternative to bottled water is tap water, purchasing bottled water may seem strange, and even imprudent. But as a way to replace sugary drinks with an affordable alternative, buying bottled water is not nearly as puzzling.