Flint: Then and Now

In Flint, Michigan, a city of 100,000 people that happens to be located in the richest country on Earth, residents turning on their taps for a glass of water may well get a glass of hazardous waste. The city recently announced, after a steady stream of complaints from residents, that the water being provided by the city and paid for by its residents was contaminated with dangerously high levels of lead. This latest calamity strikes another blow at a city that has long endured unemployment, pollution, public and private discrimination, and a host of other problems

Flint, of course, was not always a city awash in leaded water and red ink. Formerly a prosperous industrial town, the city has famously fallen on hard times as it has struggled with closing factories and a diminishing tax base. As part of its ongoing to efforts to right its financial status, the city decided to begin drawing water from the Flint River instead of purchasing it from Detroit. This move was projected to save the city $19 million over eight years. The rest of the story has been well reported – deteriorating infrastructure and a failure to properly treat the water led to thousands of children being poisoned by lead and may have also contributed to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease that killed ten people. This is Flint in 2016.

Were one to dive back into Flint’s history, however, a striking contrast could be drawn between past and present water problems. In the 1950s and 60s, as the mostly white suburbs of Flint boomed, the infrastructure of these areas was often ill equipped to handle the massive influx of new residents. The town of Flushing, a suburb roughly six miles outside the city, suffered a complete shutdown of its water system in 1954 as a growing population rapidly depleted its water sources. These problems were met with bond issues, revenue increases, and, importantly, federal assistance. As Andrew Highsmith writes in a recent book about the rise and fall of Flint, “[w]ithout fail, these projects drew financial and political support from the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies.”

Although a lot has changed since the federal and state government were aggressively funding improvements in water systems, it’s striking and tragic to consider the gap between then and now. When suburbs were rapidly expanding in the 1950s, the government was eager to underwrite the growth of these communities. Today, with the city in dire financial straits and deficit hawks in Congress reluctant to provide funding for anything but the most basic federal services, the city is in the midst of a devastating and hugely expensive public health crisis – all to save $19 million.