WUOMFM

We should all be ashamed about what is happening in Flint

Oct 7, 2015

Just think about this: What if some emergency forced the state to temporarily appoint an emergency manager in a more affluent, mostly white area?

Pretend this happens to Birmingham in Oakland County, say, or Holland.

To save money, the emergency manager stops using the longtime clean water source and switches to a local river. When residents complain that the water smells and is discolored, the emergency manager tells them it is just as good as they were getting before.

When the water turns out to be loaded with bacteria, the city dumps high levels of disinfectant into it. When those chemicals put people at a higher risk for cancer, the city shrugs.

Finally, it turns out that the river water is so corrosive it is causing lead to leach out of old pipes in as many as 15,000 older homes – dwellings disproportionately occupied by poor people of color.

At first, the city and state try to deny this, though they quietly begin giving free water filters to pastors to distribute to their congregations.

But then independent medical and investigative studies confirm the lead poisoning is real.

... does anyone really believe the state would let this happen in Birmingham?

Babies and small children are showing signs of lead poisoning, something that is known to cause irreversible brain damage. The Environmental Protection Agency found that lead levels in one family’s water was almost three times what’s needed to classify it as hazardous waste.

Yet despite all that, the mayor refuses to connect the city back up to the clean water source, saying the city can’t afford the cost.

The governor dithers for a while, then instead of helping find a way to connect the city to clean water, comes up with a paltry million dollars, mostly to provide water filters to residents who may or may not know how to install them.

The scenario described above is exactly what’s been happening in Flint, a wretchedly poor city whose residents, when they vote at all, don’t vote Republican.

Now does anyone really believe the state would let this happen in Birmingham, or Holland, or Grand Rapids? Of course we don’t.

A century ago, the essayist Anatole France wrote sarcastically that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

However, that was a time when people thought the state ought to maintain decent infrastructure for all. 

We are following policies that are not only shamelessly abusing the poor - they are turning our infrastructure into that of a third world country.

Today, we believe in allowing the bridge to collapse into the river, because the superrich can afford some other way of travel.

The infrastructure in much of our state is falling apart. In the poorest areas first, yes, but everywhere.

In Flint, water and sewer breaks are common. To add insult, the people of Flint have to pay more for this wretched water than well-off people pay for clean water elsewhere.

I live in a decent older home in a nice Detroit suburb. My last water bill was $170 for three months. Flint customers face average bills almost three times that.

We should all be ashamed. We are following policies that are not only shamelessly abusing the poor - they are turning our infrastructure into that of a third world country.

This isn’t the America of our childhoods.

But is this what we are content to allow it to become?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.