Flint’s water crisis started long before corrosive river water starting running through its pipes. Though there’s no question that those who signed off on the decisions and covered up the results are criminally responsible, responsibility also falls on all of us for setting the stage for such desperate measures.
News coverage of the water crisis regularly refers to Flint as “bankrupt” and “cash-strapped,” and notes that it had been placed under an emergency fiscal manger by the state, just as Detroit was. These things are all completely true, but without context, they can give the sense that Flint and its residents got themselves into this mess, or at best that they are a sad charity case to be pitied: “It’s no one’s fault; so sad that they got poisoned on top of it.”
Now, it has come out recently that this disastrous interim water switch can’t even be described as about saving money, since Detroit had offered six different cheaper deals to try to maintain the relationship. The reasons they stuck with the plan, and who made that decision are not fully clear yet.
Nonetheless, Flint’s fiscal struggles were real, seem to have been behind the initial impulse to look into different water sources, and were used to excuse the switch, even if there were worse motives behind it in the end. So how we regard the reasons certain communities are cash-strapped still play into how we let this (and so many other public health and environmental disasters) happen.
Flint is one of the extreme examples of how our country has allowed geographic divisions by race and income to result in reverse–Robin Hood exploitation of those with the least power.
We’ve used free trade agreements, race-to-the-bottom economic development poaching, and inconsistent union rules to allow corporations to make a fortune off of cities like Flint and then pack up and leave for cheaper workers.
We created segregated regions via redlining, mortgage discrimination, and racial violence, and then allowed local tax structures to function so that the region still relies on its urban core—for large institutions like hospitals and universities and historic theaters, for county and state government jobs, and to house and educate and provide social services to its low-wage workforce and those who fall out of it—but the residents of the rest of the region pay little to nothing for those benefits.
Despite this profoundly unfair set up, cities like Flint have long been regarded as at fault for their own problems and in need primarily of a stern dose of fiscal temperance (for example, shopping around for supposed basement bargains on crucial contracts like water supply). The headline of a Newsweek opinion column on the water crisis called Flint, “The Cheapskate City That Poisoned Its Children,” bizarrely letting the state off the hook though it was in control of the city at the time, and speaking of Flint as if it were a miser with gobs of cash lying around that it refused to spend.
Until such time as regions work more equitably, programs to help bankrupt municipalities must be re-envisioned not as punishment but as helping to make right a system long out of balance. State and federal policies that give aid to impoverished municipalities need to be re-envisioned not as charity, but as introducing a measure of fairness not present in the current distribution of tax base versus contributions to society.
It may seem like a reach—decades of racism and anti-urbanism have ingrained the myth of the hopeless, inept rust belt urban core versus the self-contained, self-sufficient outlying areas (with the attendant assumptions about race) deep in the American psyche. Call it a sort of municipal Calvinism—cities must deserve what they’ve got.
This is likely part of why we have long lacked a coherent federal urban agenda. The only presidential candidate who has even mentioned the Community Development Block Grant program is such a distant third in the Democratic primary most don’t know his name. (And CDBG got mistranscribed).
But it is possible to change these narratives: individual inequality has finally taken a significant role in our national debate, thanks to Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and Bernie Sanders and the “makers and takers” narrative about how an individual’s poverty is always a moral failing is on the defensive.
We can take that narrative challenge beyond individuals to cities like Flint. When we recognize their ongoing contributions to their regions, and the ways they’ve been subsidizing better-off areas for decades, perhaps we’ll think twice about forcing them to consider choices like dangerous water systems or skimping on anti-corrosives in the name of atoning for their supposed fiscal sins.
Photo credit: Cody Bolon, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)