The basic story of the poisoning of the children of Flint, Mich., through the water they drink is now pretty well known, but as more details come out, it keeps getting worse. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, after passing a big tax cut for the rich and corporations on coming into office, had to find cuts to make up for the lost revenue.
In Flint and other cities, he essentially nullified democratic elections, deposed elected mayors and city councils and installed his own agents with virtually dictatorial powers. The “emergency manager” of Flint decided that the city could save money by discontinuing its water supply from Lake Huron and instead drawing it from the toxic Flint River. He then failed to treat the new water with additives needed to keep the city’s old pipes from leaching lead. When people objected to the brown, smelly water filled with particles that was coming out of the taps, the governor’s men reassured them the water was safe. All of Flint’s children were exposed to water with elevated levels of lead.
Now we learn that General Motors complained to state officials that the water was corroding their auto parts. So the governor’s team gave GM its own hook up back to the water from Lake Huron — while still insisting to the residents of Flint that the water was safe for their children to drink.
State officials also acted promptly to respond to the bad water for one other constituency: state employees in Flint’s state office building. Even as it was reassuring residents that the water was safe to drink, Flint officials arranged for coolers of purified water to be set up on all the floors of the office building.
Flint’s residents — disproportionately black and low income — were seen as disposable. And they are not alone. The national statistics on lead poisoning, as Kevin Drum of Mother Jones details, show that African-Americans were poisoned at three times the rate of whites until recent times. And, of course, low-income people are poisoned at higher rates than the more affluent; poor, urban African-Americans and Latinos suffer the highest rates of all.
Drum notes that while white children were severely afflicted in the postwar lead epidemic, it produced “nothing less than a carnage among black kids.” He argues that before lead was brought under control in the late 1980s, virtually an entire generation of urban black teenagers was at risk of lower IQs, more behavior problems in school, higher rates of violent behavior. This, of course, reinforced already vicious racial stereotypes of African-Americans, and of the poor. The only hope in Flint is that the children’s exposure was limited in time and intensity, but even that is grasping at straws.
And as Flint resident and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore points out, this isn’t just a crisis of water. Flint’s residents now see the value of their homes wiped out and their hopes for jobs dashed. Few would consider buying a home in Flint now. Few employers will want to set up shop there or expand there. The governor’s men have wreaked untold economic damage on the residents of Flint on top of the threat to their health.
The lessons of Flint are plain. Those who scorn government are the wrong people to elect to head it. Government capacity to enforce health and safety, to police environmental poisons and water safety, is essential to the security of our children. As America gets more and more unequal, the cynical, unstated assumption that there are some who are simply disposable, who don’t deserve decent services, is likely to spread.
But Flint may end up showing something else as well. That cynicism is more corrosive than the toxic water coming from the Flint River. People aren’t going to put up with it. They aren’t going to adjust quietly to the decline of basic services. The Flint calamity was exposed because the poorest residents objected time and again, despite the reassurances issued by authorities.
The failure of the governor’s local dictator and of the state officials themselves is now apparent. Yet the reaction to the calamity still seems in slow motion. It is time for the federal government to step in. Investigations should lead to indictments. Federal resources should be mobilized to rectify the water in Flint immediately, and to provide the city with a real plan for renovation and revival.