American austerity rarely receives the same kind of attention paid to Europe’s evisceration of its social programs in the name of balancing budgets. But American austerity is no less brutal. Consider Detroit: since Michigan Governor Rick Snyder imposed an “emergency manager” system on the city, stripping authority from local elected officials and steering Detroit into bankruptcy, residents already battered by deindustrialization have faced cuts to their pensions and services. The early months of 2014 saw thousands of families who could not pay their utility bills targeted for water shutoffs.
But something instructive happened when Detroiters and their allies across the country rallied in July to highlight the denial of water, which is identified by the United Nations as a human right. The proponents of austerity were put on the defensive, and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department announced a temporary suspension of the shutoffs. That small victory was followed a week later by the emergency manager’s decision to hand more control over the water utility to the city’s elected mayor. These shifts mattered for families in Detroit, and matter strategically for all of us who argue that the agenda of austerity-prone Republicans like House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—who wants to collapse federal anti-poverty initiatives into “block grants” that give “flexibility” to governors like Snyder—is not economically or politically viable.
If America is to have a meaningful debate about economic injustice, that debate must focus on the human toll when policy-makers balance budgets by cutting and privatizing. Economists like Paul Krugman remind us that slashing spending and cutting jobs are “a major drag on the overall economy.” But the pushback requires more than restatements of economic reality. There has to be a recognition of the ideological and practical links between human suffering and the assaults on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Postal Service, public education and, yes, access to water in Detroit.
When the issue of water shutoffs arose during a July hearing on Detroit’s bankruptcy, Judge Steven Rhodes told a utility representative, “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city but also a lot of hardship.” He added, “It’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now.”
But bad publicity can create good policy. It is not enough to gripe about Republican governors like Snyder and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, or about members of Congress like Ryan. Trying to stake out a slightly more moderate position than austerity-minded Republicans is a weak response to the damage done by them and by Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who choose cuts and closures over taxing those who can pay. Detailing the harm, not just to the most vulnerable among us but to society as a whole, is vital. A recognition of suffering is necessary as a rejoinder to the absurd claim that the wealthiest country in the world cannot afford to provide adequate education, food security or water. That’s a lesson that groups like National People’s Action and unions such as National Nurses United (NNU) have embraced, and their rhetoric should be deployed by progressives as they advance grassroots struggles and seek to influence the 2014 and 2016 election debates.
When the NNU and its local affiliate, the Michigan Nurses Association, allied with such Detroit groups as the People’s Water Board and Moratorium Now, they pulled no punches. Jean Ross, a registered nurse and NNU co-president, told a rally in downtown Detroit, “We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics.” Detroiters echoed those concerns with stories of hard times, with expressions of concern about what they suspect is a broader agenda to privatize the water utility, and with calls for the UN to address the shutoffs.
Netroots Nation bloggers and activists, in town for their annual gathering, amplified the message. The water utility cried foul, claiming it was striving to prevent hardships. But local media began to report on what the Detroit Free Press referred to as “residents making do without a necessity of life.” Within days, the fifteen-day suspension of shutoffs was announced.
Detroit is one city, and the fight for access to water—at affordable rates for those who can pay and as a right for those who cannot—provides a dramatic illustration of austerity’s harsh reality. But Congressman Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and joined the rally in Detroit, is right when he says, “There’s a lesson here: we have to talk about how cuts hurt human beings, about how they hurt communities. When we get specific, Americans get that there has to be a better way. That’s how we break the cycle and open up a real debate about fair taxation, job creation and solutions.”