What Flint Tells Us about Government and Citizens

Photo from  Wikimedia

Photo from Wikimedia

The water crisis in Flint, MI doesn’t look like it’s going to improve any time soon. The government is becoming more and more embroiled in this scandal, and the effects of lead poisoning on the children of Flint may not truly be know for years. Chuck Marohn and Nate Hood both wrote about this developing story earlier this week on our site. I’m going to add a different perspective today (If you want more background on this situation, here’s a good place to get started.)

I first learned about lead poisoning during a summer job at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control. That’s a mouthful, but essentially it is an entire office that was created in 1991 to combat lead poisoning, in this case, through house paint. I could still recite for you the specific federal policies that govern the way lead paint should be abated in rental housing (especially since another job I held a couple years later working to rehouse homeless families had me inspecting the very homes I had helped regulate back at HUD for lead paint issues). Thankfully, the epidemic of children poisoned by peeling paint in their homes, and suffering brain damage and learning delays as a result has gone down considerably in the last several decades—in large part, because of this HUD office. 

This, to me, exemplifies one of the reasons we have government: to regulate issues that affect the health and safety of Americans, which we may not trust private companies to self-regulate and which we, as consumers, are not skilled enough to deduce ourselves. So the idea that government leaders (local, state, federal, EPA, you name it) had an inkling that Flint’s water was corroding its pipes and sending dangerous chemicals into people’s bathtubs and sinks, and did nothing about it, is deeply distressing.

Of course, the worst part of all of this is that it happened to a poor and largely Black community, a community where the average person can barely afford medical costs, let alone the special assistance and guidance that will be needed to help these lead-poisoned kids make it through life.  This is a community that can’t just go out and buy fancy water purifiers or bottled water themselves. This is a community that can’t just move away.

On Monday, Chuck discussed the failure of the pipe system in Flint and proposed a potential alternative—building a smaller, cheaper pipe system that’s just for drinking/cooking/bathing water and not for fire-fighting water. On Wednesday, Nate discussed the failure of the suburban growth pattern and proposed that cities like Flint contract so that they can actually afford their infrastructure.

I’m here to discuss the failure of government. I’m not the first to say it, but it bears repeating: The government failed Flint. At the local, state and even federal levels, government did not step in and regulate the issues it needed to regulate.

If not for the intervention of active, strong citizens in the town of Flint, the situation might have gotten even worse.

Many people have pointed to the fact that it was largely the persistent outcry from residents of Flint that eventually led to an investigation of the water contamination in the city and the revelation that the government had a huge hand in allowing it to happen. If not for the intervention of active, strong citizens in the town of Flint, the situation might have gotten even worse.

The average person doesn’t think much about the water coming out of their tap, or the cars driving down their streets, or the new roads being constructed in their cities. They assume that’s all in the hands of someone else, someone who’s thought through the process and is making decisions in their best interest. But that’s clearly not always the case. When faced with a budget shortfall, Flint leadership chose the cheapest possible water option in a moment of desperation—a choice that will end up costing it millions more in the long run than it would have cost to do it safe and right the first time, not to mention the immeasurable cost in health problems to its citizens.

We have a lot to learn from Flint. We need to plan for financially anti-fragile cities that can actually afford their basic infrastructure so they won’t turn to dangerous options in desperate times. I pray that most cities don’t need to endure a catastrophic event like the situation in Flint to get their citizens active and asking the hard questions. We need to educate ourselves (and our governments need to become more transparent) about exactly how much our overextended pattern of development has bankrupted us and future generations. Reading Strong Towns is a great place to start.

The situation in Flint is a truly horrific example of what happens when you can’t pay for your infrastructure, but many of our cities are experiencing financial disaster and they just don’t realize it yet. They will soon. 

I’m going to repeat that this situation is worse and also less surprising because it happened in a poor Black community. It’s worse because it effects an already marginalized population. It is less surprising because the government time and again has disenfranchised poor minorities through red-lining, highway construction and countless other urban planning policies. It is the responsibility of everyone, but especially white, middle class people who possess more power in this society and who are much better represented in government, to act for change.

Before I worked at HUD, I was uncertain of my views on government—whether it was a force for good or just a big bureaucratic mess. After getting a glimpse of life inside the machine though, I developed a more critical eye: I found myself both frustrated by the amount of time it took to get anything done, and also more convinced than ever that good could come out of it. I truly believe that government can serve us, but we need to be invested in it and critical of it in order for that to happen. 

(Top photo from YouTube)

Related stories