We’ve all been thinking about Flint, Michigan. And talking about it. What do you say when those who lead our government have failed us? Have failed our children? And may even have done so recklessly or knowingly? When government officials who have been trusted to keep us safe expose us to danger? Because they wanted to save money?
Of course, we have to say that this is outrageous. That delivering safe, clean water is a fundamental responsibility of our government and a public trust we should be able to take for granted–and that prioritizing cost-savings over public health and safety is a huge breach of that trust. But we also have to remind ourselves that government is us. It is ours. It is people we have elected and hired to make decisions for the public good in the best interests of our community. And when they don’t do that? Then we have to imagine some better government into reality. And we have to talk about what’s happening in Flint better.
(We have a new tool to help us talk about this better. More productively. In a way that will help us make the changes we need, while remembering that government is one of the most powerful ways to solve these kinds of problems – even when it helped to create them. So click here to help us make change.)
It’s not entirely clear what happened in Flint yet. We’ll get the facts locked down in the next few weeks or months. But here’s what we know (with special thanks to Vox for its excellent explainer articles as always).
“Flint was once a prosperous manufacturing town, but it never recovered from the closure of General Motors plants in the late 20th century. By 2013, when the water saga started, Flint’s population had dropped from 200,000 in the city’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s to about 99,000 today. Its landscape was dotted with abandoned homes. The unemployment rate was 16 percent. Forty-two percent of residents, including two-thirds of children, were living in poverty — a higher share than even Detroit, which had become a symbol of post-recession urban blight.
Flint was also going broke. It had lost 75 percent of its property tax base since the 1980s. In 2011, an emergency manager took control of the town’s finances. The city was overloaded with $1.1 billion in unfunded pension costs.
There wasn’t much left to cut: Budget cuts had already slashed Flint’s police force, cutting the total number of officers from 265 in 2007 to 122 in 2012. In 2013, it was named the most dangerous city in America.
So Flint, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, decided to save money on water. It had been purchasing water from Detroit, but costs had been climbing even as Flint’s population fell. In 2013, the city decided to join a new, regional water system that, like Detroit, drew water from Lake Huron. The switch would save millions of dollars per year.
The problem was that the regional water system wasn’t yet built, and Flint wanted to start getting its water from somewhere other than Detroit right away.” (via Vox, with additional thanks. It really is an excellent history in full that you should read.)
In April of 2014, in an effort to cut the city’s costs, an emergency manager appointed by the state of Michigan switched Flint’s water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The same river that General Motors had long used as a chemical dumping ground. The city council had voted to switch to the new water system, but never actually to the Flint River. The state’s former treasurer, Andrew Dillon, signed off on the switch and Governor Snyder’s chief of staff wrote an email to the governor that the decision was, at the end of the day, Dillon’s to make. The state-appointed emergency managers also signed off on the decision.
Flint residents, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color compared to most communities, complained immediately, but the city just kept telling them everything was fine. It was corrosive, contaminated with bacteria, and had high levels of other contaminants. In June 2014, an EPA employee leaked a report showing high levels of lead in the water to an activist. Flint still denied the lead, until “outside researchers from Virginia Tech got involved and found extremely high levels of lead in the water of some Flint homes.”
And now, in Flint, “the proportion of children with high blood lead levels doubled, from 2.1 percent to 4 percent.” The state finally admitted that Flint’s water was dangerous in October, handing out water filters and buying water from Detroit again. The state Department of Environmental Quality admitted that it failed in testing Flint’s water for lead. They have Legionnaires’ disease in Michigan. The Michigan National Guard is on the ground distributing water bottles and President Obama has signed an emergency declaration that sends federal aid from FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.
And even now that Flint is back on the Detroit water supply, the corrosive water damaged the lead pipes still used in some parts of the city, so they’ll still be getting lead in their tap water for the foreseeable future. Water clean enough to bathe in, but not to drink. The damage is done and will continue.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency says that both state and local officials dropped the ball. Put their citizens at risk. And the voices of the citizens crying out about the health of their children were not heard. Their complaints, and those of their representatives were ignored and even mocked. Remember that someone who received information from the EPA about the water? That was LeaAnne Walters, a Navy wife and mother terrified about what was happening to her children. When her complaints were ignored by the city (they said it was her pipes, not the water, giving her children lead poisoning), she also became the contact point for getting Virginia Tech involved in testing the water. And blowing this case sky high. Because she, like the other terrified parents of Flint, would do anything to protect their children. The shame of it is that the government didn’t listen to them until it was impossible not to.
And Governor Snyder is blaming “career civil servants” for giving his staff bad advice or the “culture of government.” Even government is blaming other government officials. Passing the buck until they think the public will get dizzy and give up.
And the people of Flint feel betrayed. Because they were.
So what happened? Problems arise when our government officials forget that they are there to make decisions about our health and safety based on the public good and instead try to save the money. Especially when they make those decisions on the backs of those they believe will not have their complaints heard or believed. And then make that true.
Government is a unique entity. It’s the way we come together to solve big problems that affect the public good. Run by us. For us. With us. It’s the only method by which we as a community can ensure that our shared issues, like getting clean water and good educations for our children, will be handled equitably and transparently and we can hold those making the decisions accountable. And most of the time, this works! Most of us have clean water right at this moment and we take it for granted. Because our governments are largely making decisions for the good of the community and, when we have to make cost-based decisions, they are made openly and so as to protect the health and safety of our people.
But in Michigan, it didn’t happen that way. The public trust of the citizens of Flint was violated. The citizens of Flint turned on their taps and out flowed water that was unsafe to drink, to bathe in or to cook with. Decisions were made to save money, rather than to protect the health and lives of the children in Flint. Those children will pay the price of that money-saving. And then there was a cover-up to protect those in power, again, ignoring the health and safety of the people of Flint. Believing them to be of less importance. The people they were supposed to be serving. Protecting. That they were acting as representatives of and as stewards for. At least in theory.
When things like this happen, we all want someone to blame. But it’s hard to do that. On an individual? The governor? The emergency manager? How can a single person be the real problem here? Or, is the problem really the way that the State of Michigan is dealing with its financially-struggling communities? The governance of Flint was turned over to a state-appointed Emergency Manager who was not elected and does not report to the people of Flint. So they had no way to hold him accountable for this decision.
When things like this happen, it’s easy to say that government is the problem. But, that misses the point. Government is also the best solution we have. Even to problems that government officials create. Maybe not exactly this government, exactly as it is. But the government that we aspire to. One that is responsive to the needs and complaints of its citizens. One that is led by people who understand their job description as representatives. One that is motivated by the common good rather than the bottom line.
Here, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, finding that both the city and the state were “inadequate to protect public health,” is changing its procedures for testing and overseeing crises. Its own regional administrator for Flint resigned for not responding adequately herself. There will be congressional hearings and investigations in the months to come. The water is being tested and filtered for now, the National Guard was called in to help get aid distributed. FEMA and DHS are coordinating the relief and everyone is doing their best to help.
So what can we really do about Flint right now? We can require that our leaders act. That the EPA step in. That state and local agencies step in. To send resources. Water. And food. And medicine. And medical attention. And access to educational resources for those children to help them get back to where they should be. And whatever else we can do to help.
But the best way to help after the crisis is over is to make sure this never happens again. Anywhere, whether with dirty water or anything else. And to do that, we can’t get cynical about government again. Instead, we must step up. We need to imagine a government that would not let this happen. What needs to be different? Do you need to be in office? Do we need different processes to make sure that the water our children are drinking is clean? Do we need more transparency or more accountability? How can we ensure that when there is a problem in our neighborhood or our town or our state the problem is understood and addressed at the highest levels, regardless of the wealth or race of those who affected? All of these things are possible if we first imagine it. And then we do what’s necessary to make it reality.
The people of Flint are already on the case. The nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy issued the following statement on Governor Rick Snyder’s 2016 State of the State address:
“Tonight the Governor outlined a plan of action to address the Flint water crisis, and now it’s up to him to roll up his sleeves, show some leadership and push the Legislature—led by his party—to get it done,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, League president and CEO. “This man-made disaster poisoned communities and will have lifelong consequences for kids and families in Flint. We have to make sure that the policy solutions and support for these children and their families are also life-long, and guarantee that human suffering for the sake of cost-savings never, ever happens again, in any community in the state, under anyone’s watch.”
They’ve created citizens’ groups like Water You Fighting For, the Coalition for Clean Water, and the Flint Democracy Defense League, and offered ideas and sometimes demands to the state. They want clean water. To find out what went wrong and why. Access to democratic reform so that the residents of Flint can repair their public infrastructure. To treat the children who were damaged, and will be damaged, by the lead in their water. They are imagining a gov that will hear them and care for them and their community as it should. And they are making it a reality.
What’s happening right now in Flint is a tragedy. Not just for the people of Flint, and of Michigan, but for all Americans. But hopefully, it will also be a call to action. For all of us, no matter where we live. To get involved. To step up. To make sure that our voices are heard. To ask questions and get involved. Because government is us. But that only works if government is actually us. When we forget that these are our children. Our water. Our future. Our towns and cities and countries. Our elected officials and city employees. They’re making decisions for us because we asked them to. But if you don’t like the decisions, let’s help make sure new ones get made. And your voices are heard.
And we need to make sure our conversations about Flint are productive. So Indivisible has a tool for you. To help make it easier to discuss this complicated topic. And so that some good for our government and our future can come from this horrible situation.
So download the tool now. And let’s do what we can do.