Flint’s Water Crisis Is No Accident. It’s the Result of Years of Devastating Free-Market Reforms.

This is what neoliberal governance looks like.

Jacob Lederman January 22, 2016

(Michigan Municipal League / Flickr)

In an Octo­ber 8, 2015 press con­fer­ence, Michi­gan Gov­er­nor Rick Sny­der made a sur­pris­ing about-face. After installing an unelect­ed emer­gency man­ag­er in the city of Flint in 2011, the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor was forced to reverse his appointee’s 2014 deci­sion to switch the water sup­ply to the Flint Riv­er. The deci­sion was prompt­ed by a Vir­ginia Tech study that con­firmed high lev­els of lead in many of the city’s homes. Despite the switch back, lead con­tin­ues to leach from aging pipes as a result of the dam­age caused by the cor­ro­sive riv­er water.

The city’s poisoned water supply, as well as its devastated school system, crumbling infrastructure and high levels of violence have their origins elsewhere. Flint’s struggles are deeply tied to state efforts around the country to discipline cities through neoliberal economic reforms.

That same day, how­ev­er, the gov­er­nor dou­bled down on his harsh approach to Flint’s fis­cal strug­gles. Despite the state’s cul­pa­bil­i­ty, Sny­der would pay for only half of the $12 mil­lion nec­es­sary to return the city to safe drink­ing water. The rest would be paid for by the cash-strapped city itself and its pow­er­ful bene­fac­tor, the C.S. Mott Foun­da­tion, a non­prof­it set up by one of GM’s orig­i­nal share­hold­ers. If Flint res­i­dents want­ed clean water, they would have to pony up for it.

Snyder’s par­si­mo­ny fit with­in a larg­er nar­ra­tive the gov­er­nor had craft­ed around Michigan’s flag­ging indus­tri­al cities: Local offi­cials and their pop­u­la­tions had lived beyond their means. State offi­cials would now force them to tight­en their belts in ser­vice to a more effi­cient, com­pet­i­tive state economy.

On the sur­face, Flint’s lead-con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water appears to be the prod­uct of a specif­i­cal­ly local form of neg­li­gence and cor­rup­tion. But in fact, the city’s poi­soned water sup­ply, as well as its dev­as­tat­ed school sys­tem, crum­bling infra­struc­ture and high lev­els of vio­lence have their ori­gins else­where. Flint’s strug­gles are deeply tied to state efforts around the coun­try to dis­ci­pline cities through neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic reforms. 

A cri­sis foretold

Since 1967, the city of Flint had pur­chased treat­ed water from Detroit. But in a 2014 effort to save mon­ey, emer­gency man­ag­er Dar­nell Ear­ley (now the head of Detroit’s school sys­tem), switched Flint’s water sup­ply to the Flint Riv­er. The expect­ed sav­ings amount­ed to rough­ly $2 mil­lion per year.

Almost imme­di­ate­ly, res­i­dents com­plained of the water’s col­or, taste and odor. State offi­cials ignored their claims. And because the city was under emer­gency finan­cial man­age­ment, the elect­ed may­or and city coun­cil held no offi­cial pow­er to change course.

Ear­ly on, warn­ing signs appeared. Fecal col­iform bac­te­ria led to numer­ous alerts telling cit­i­zens to boil their water. The city resolved the prob­lem by adding more chlo­rine to the water — which in turn ele­vat­ed lev­els of tri­halomethanes (TTHMs), lead­ing to the city’s vio­la­tion of the Clean Water Act.

But then some­thing unex­pect­ed hap­pened. Unlike the most­ly impov­er­ished Flint res­i­dents that the state of Michi­gan had ignored, an out­sider appeared. Marc Edwards, a researcher and pro­fes­sor of Civ­il Engi­neer­ing at Vir­ginia Tech, start­ed tak­ing his own sam­ples of Flint’s res­i­den­tial water sup­ply. The results point­ed to wide­spread lead contamination.

The Flint River’s cor­ro­sive water had leached lead from the city’s aging pipe infra­struc­ture. And Edwards dis­cov­ered a num­ber of cas­es of offi­cial malfea­sance: State and city offi­cials had not accu­rate­ly test­ed homes more like­ly to be con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed, did not under­take fol­low-up test­ing in homes that had shown high lev­els of lead and had uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly thrown out two sam­ples that would have pushed the water sup­ply above the fed­er­al­ly man­dat­ed lim­it of 15 parts per billion.

Increas­ing­ly, these events sug­gest­ed a cov­er-up at the high­est lev­els of the state gov­ern­ment, where offi­cials appear to have known of lead con­t­a­m­i­na­tion long before Edwards made his find­ings publics.

Many Michi­gan cit­i­zens seem to agree. Just this week, film­mak­er Michael Moore vis­it­ed his home­town, call­ing the major­i­ty African Amer­i­can city a crime scene, and advo­cat­ing for Gov­er­nor Snyder’s arrest. This is a racial crime. If it were hap­pen­ing in anoth­er coun­try we’d call it an eth­nic cleans­ing”, he lat­er wrote. On Sat­ur­day, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma declared a fed­er­al emer­gency over Flint’s water. 

Flint’s pound of flesh

By most accounts, cities like Flint are vic­tims of struc­tur­al forces. The com­mon-sense canard that glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change have made rust-belt cities unvi­able has been a con­ve­nient nar­ra­tive for restruc­tur­ing indus­tri­al cities through fis­cal aus­ter­i­ty pro­grams. But while dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion is an impor­tant part of Flint’s sto­ry, it obscures broad­er polit­i­cal forces that have dec­i­mat­ed bud­gets and bat­tered work­ing class pop­u­la­tions across the Midwest. 

Accord­ing to the Michi­gan Munic­i­pal League, between 2003 – 2013, Flint lost close to 60 mil­lion dol­lars in rev­enue shar­ing from the state, tied to the sales tax, which increased over the same decade. Dur­ing this peri­od, the city cut its police force in half while vio­lent crime dou­bled, from 12.2 per 1000 peo­ple in 2003, to 23.4 in 2011. Such a loss of rev­enue is larg­er than the entire 2015 Flint gen­er­al fund budget.

In fact, cuts to Michi­gan cities like Flint and Detroit have occurred as state author­i­ties raid­ed so-called statu­to­ry rev­enue shar­ing funds to bal­ance their own bud­gets and pay for cuts in busi­ness tax­es. Unlike con­sti­tu­tion­al” rev­enue shar­ing in Michi­gan, state author­i­ties could divert these resources at their dis­cre­tion. It is esti­mat­ed that between 2003 – 2013 the state with­held over $6 bil­lion dol­lars from Michi­gan cities.

And cuts to rev­enue shar­ing increased in line with the state’s polit­i­cal turn. Democ­rats suf­fered major loss­es in the state leg­is­la­ture in 2010, while the gov­er­nor­ship switched hands with the elec­tion of Repub­li­can Rick Sny­der in the same year. In a cli­mate of aus­ter­i­ty at both the state and nation­al lev­els, and with Tea Par­ty con­ser­v­a­tives dom­i­nat­ing the Repub­li­can Par­ty, cuts to cash-strapped munic­i­pal­i­ties opened the door to claims that cities like Flint and Detroit were liv­ing beyond their means.

With city bud­gets in the red, state author­i­ties imposed new forms of mar­ket-based dis­ci­pline on strug­gling munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments. In 2011, Sny­der imple­ment­ed the Eco­nom­ic Vital­i­ty Incen­tive Pro­gram (EVIP), a new statu­to­ry rev­enue-shar­ing pro­gram that required cities to under­take mar­ket-friend­ly reforms. And while dimin­ished rev­enue shar­ing had been tak­ing place since the ear­ly 2000s, the new statu­to­ry guide­lines specif­i­cal­ly based state fund­ing on aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures tak­en at the local level.

Rev­enue shar­ing was now tied to account­abil­i­ty and trans­paren­cy, con­sol­i­da­tion of ser­vices and employ­ee com­pen­sa­tion. Accord­ing to Snyder’s plan, local gov­ern­ments would be pro­vid­ed statu­to­ry rev­enue if they cut back spend­ing on expen­di­tures such as health care costs for new employ­ees. Ser­vices would be con­sol­i­dat­ed or pri­va­tized, and the over­all thrust of the pro­gram posi­tioned Michi­gan cities as busi­ness­es pro­vid­ing com­pet­i­tive prod­ucts to their citizen-consumers.

Mean­while, as the amount that the state of Michi­gan shared with strug­gling cities con­tin­ued to drop, Sny­der pre­sent­ed him­self as a bud­get-bal­anc­ing tech­no­crat — pos­si­ble in part through his appro­pri­a­tion of these very munic­i­pal funds.

More impor­tant­ly, cuts in rev­enue shar­ing cre­at­ed inevitable fis­cal dif­fi­cul­ties at the urban lev­el. But beyond spread­sheets and line items, these pre­dictable bud­get crises were polit­i­cal in nature. They opened up the door to emer­gency man­age­ment in Flint and Detroit, in which a hand­picked tech­no­crat of the governor’s choos­ing could now side­line demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance. In late 2011, the gov­er­nor installed his first emer­gency man­ag­er in Flint.

Emer­gency man­age­ment has done what demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics under aus­ter­i­ty could not. While the city’s emer­gency man­ag­er called City Coun­cil efforts to return Flint to Detroit water incom­pre­hen­si­ble,” Flint’s most recent bud­get deficits have been cut on the backs of schools, pub­lic health and city workers.

As a con­se­quence, local non­prof­its and foun­da­tions have picked up the slack. The Flint-based C.S. Mott Foun­da­tion, with an endow­ment of close to $2 bil­lion, has bankrolled ser­vices from home­less shel­ters, to soup kitchens, to the upmar­ket trans­for­ma­tion of down­town with new restau­rants, a wine bar and farmer’s market.

Empha­siz­ing per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and self reliance, the Mott Foun­da­tion is cru­cial to the sur­vival of many of the city’s poor­est res­i­dents and the ser­vices they rely upon. But it also rep­re­sents the post-demo­c­ra­t­ic nature of urban gov­er­nance in cities like Flint. While unelect­ed offi­cials cut ser­vices for the needy, the indi­vid­ual agen­das of non­prof­its decide who is wor­thy of sup­port. These changes encour­age Flint res­i­dents to view access to ser­vices such as edu­ca­tion or health as a form of pri­vate largesse, rather than a basic human right.

The long agony of neglect

The spec­ta­cle of a com­mu­ni­ty know­ing­ly poi­soned has right­ly cap­tured the atten­tion of the nation­al media. But Flint’s water emer­gency also speaks to a much larg­er cri­sis. Flint has spent the last two gen­er­a­tions bat­tling hos­tile sub­urbs for a ratio­nal dis­tri­b­u­tion of region­al tax­es, as Daniel Hertz recent­ly explained in these pages. The com­pe­ti­tion between munic­i­pal­i­ties has pit­ted Flint against its sub­urbs, pro­duc­ing a race to the bot­tom in tax­a­tion as local offi­cials strive to pro­duce a bet­ter busi­ness envi­ron­ment” at the expense of schools, health and pub­lic safety.

The city has been blind­sided by GM’s strat­e­gy of prof­it max­i­miza­tion, as the com­pa­ny shift­ed tens of thou­sands of jobs to the South, West, and beyond, in order to avoid union­ized work­ers. Of the 80,000 GM jobs once locat­ed in Flint, some 8,000 remain, while unem­ploy­ment is dou­ble the nation­al aver­age and pover­ty hov­ers at 40 per­cent of the population.

At the same time, the city has seen state inter­est wane as its demo­graph­ics have shift­ed as a result of white flight and region­al impov­er­ish­ment. And while state offi­cials have now rec­og­nized the city’s water prob­lem, lit­tle has been said about its shut­tered schools, lack of safe­ty or grim pover­ty statistics.

The few pub­lic funds that do exist for Flint demon­strate the nar­row vision of con­tem­po­rary urban and social pol­i­cy. The state gov­ern­ment has ear­marked fed­er­al Hard­est Hit” funds, meant to keep under­wa­ter home­own­ers in their hous­es, for demol­ish­ing vacant struc­tures instead. Like­wise, local offi­cials and elites advo­cate for shrink­ing city” strate­gies in Flint and Detroit.

These poli­cies offer no solu­tions to strug­gling res­i­dents, instead assum­ing that poor and high vacan­cy neigh­bor­hoods will even­tu­al­ly revert to urban green space fol­low­ing a peri­od of gov­ern­ment inac­tion. What hap­pens to the poor and work­ing-class peo­ple who used to live in those new green spaces? No one seems to care.

Today Flint is bank­rupt. Not because its fis­cal books are not in order — because it has been bank­rupt by the pover­ty of urban pol­i­cy, by the will­ful neglect of author­i­ties and a sys­tem that sees lit­tle val­ue in the peo­ple of this city. It is a city man­aged today by unelect­ed state author­i­ties and kept afloat by the benef­i­cence of gen­er­ous, but unac­count­able, nonprofits.

Flint’s poi­so­nous water is mere­ly the lat­est, and most high pro­file exam­ple of a bank­rupt sys­tem of neolib­er­al governance.

Jacob Led­er­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan-Flint.
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