Last month, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) delivered his fifth State of the State address, a ceremonious speech that typically presents the governor’s legislative priorities and vision for the year ahead. But instead of talking about pressing priorities—such as the need to reform the state’s public education system, improve its job market, or invest in its infrastructure—Governor Snyder was forced to apologize for his government’s failure to provide clean, safe water to the people of Flint, Michigan.
The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 with an effort to cut the budget. Government officials chose to switch water access from the clean Lake Huron to the more corrosive and polluted Flint River. As Curt Guyette, a journalist for the ACLU explained on TalkPoverty Radio, almost immediately residents began complaining of hair loss, rashes, and tap water that looked and tasted strange. Yet, despite calls from concerned residents, city and state officials assured the community that the water was fine. Former Flint mayor Dayne Walling (D) even drank the water on television to dissuade any further concerns. For months, nothing was done.
At the heart of current national outrage is the impact that tainted water will have on Flint residents—especially the city’s children. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that even minimal lead exposure can cause cognitive and behavioral issues, including an increased propensity toward violent behavior. In fact, children with lead poisoning are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system than those not exposed to lead. Moreover, the impact of lead exposure is irreversible.
The long history of environmental racism
In the midst of this knowledge, it is hard to ignore the facts that 56 percent of Flint’s population is African American and most of the city’s residents live paycheck to paycheck. According to the 2015 Census, more than 40 percent of residents are living below the federal poverty level. Once the booming Vehicle City where General Motors was born, Flint has since lost its industrial base and, with it, government investment in all forms of infrastructure. Support for the city’s schools, public transportation, and employment has fallen by the wayside.