Starving Government Creates Disasters Like Flint


For the residents of Flint, Michigan, the water crisis continues. Their governor and President Obama have declared states of emergency. Congress is holding hearings. Presidential candidates are doing tours and debates. Free filters are being handed out. Resident can pick up bottled water. The city has gone back to water coming out of Lake Huron rather than the Flint River. But for parents, the fears remain — and almost nothing has been done. They will join in a March on Flint on Feb. 19 to demand action at the national and state level.

Flint residents don’t know if the filters work. They don’t know if they should bathe in the water or use it to wash clothes. Almost all the children in Flint under age 6 have been exposed to elevated levels of lead in the water. And the water still isn’t safe.

Flint, already impoverished before the calamity, has been devastated. People don’t know whether to trust eating in restaurants. Universities are finding it hard to recruit students. Businesses aren’t about to move into Flint.

Even before the crisis, Flint had 11,000 vacant lots and 10,000 abandoned homes, according to the Washington Post. The population has fallen by more than half since 1960, as General Motors shipped jobs away. Forty percent of the city’s population is below the poverty line. The average household income is about $25,000, less than half that of typical U.S. household.

Now, the 30,000 homes that are occupied have lost virtually all their value. Who would buy a house where the water is not safe?

Mayor Karen Weaver estimates it will cost $45 million to replace the lead service lines to 15,000 homes in Flint, according to the Post. Mona Hanna Attisha, the pediatrician who helped exposed the lead poisoning in children, estimates it will cost $100 million to combat the potential effects. Overhauling the Flint water distribution system will cost an estimated $1 billion.

No one knows where the money will come from. The president’s state of emergency freed up a few million federal dollars in short-term assistance. State and private donations have added up to $28 million, but a good portion of that has to repay Flint residents for the water bills they are paying when they can’t use the water.

For the residents of Flint, this is a disaster. The damage suffered is like getting hit by a hurricane like Katrina. The federal government should declare it a national disaster and mandate action. Congress should step up and appropriate emergency funds. Flint residents may be disproportionately older, poorer and black — but they are part of this country.

The national disaster has hit Flint but it is already coming to other communities. Lead pipes were banned 30 years ago, but there are an estimated 3.3 to 10 million still in service, according to the New York Times. EPA’s trigger level for action — 15 parts of lead in a billion — is arbitrary, set not on the basis of a health standard, but so 90 percent of homes fall below it. And EPA’s annual budget for safe drinking water has fallen 15 percent since 2002, with 10 percent of its staff lost. In 2013, 17 states cut their drinking water budgets by more than a fifth.

One-third of Americans get drinking water from wetlands and tributaries not yet superintended by EPA. When the Agency sought to issue a rule, reports the Times, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation to overturn it and two dozen states sued to stop it, worried that it would hurt business.

The Guardian reports that its inside sources suggest that in “every major U.S. city east of the Mississippi,” water authorities “systematically distort water tests” to downplay the levels of lead in the water.

At $5,000 a pipe, according to the Times, it is estimated that it would cost up to $50 billion to get rid of lead pipes servicing homes with water. That’s on top of the $384 billion EPA estimates it will need in deferred maintenance to keep drinking water safe. Yet conservatives keep slashing core budgets in order to keep cutting top end taxes. The problem with making government so small that you can “drown it in a bathtub” — conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist’s famous quip — is that you’ll end up like Flint, with your children drinking and bathing with poisoned water.

Clean and safe drinking water isn’t a luxury. It shouldn’t require purchasing bottled water. It should be provided and policed by our government. It should be a basic necessity that we share in providing securely. Flint shows the horror of violating that basic trust. Only Flint is not alone. If we continue to starve basic functions of government, we will see more and more Flints in our future.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.