Flint, Michigan. Let’s be really clear up front. I cannot imagine a more scandalous situation. If someone or a party contaminated an entire city’s water supply, we would consider it an act of terrorism. If a nation carried this out, we’d probably declare war against it.
We did it all by ourselves. Government officials perpetrated this. I doubt any of them will go to jail, even though some should. If they are found guilty and sued, the financial penalties wouldn’t come close to covering the financial costs, both short-term and long-term.
How do we compensate for a child’s life’s lost future due to lead poisoning? What do you say to parents whose dreams for their child have been burst?
At some point the state with some federal money will take corrective action and will find some compensation formula. It will be very expensive. However, that money will come from taxpayers, and I doubt the taxes would exempt residents of Flint. Chutzpah is having to pay out of your pocket to compensate for damages you suffered.
Should we be surprised? I don’t think so.
This tragedy has been years in the making. First, we have an aging infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers rates our nation’s overall infrastructure D+. A sample of the infrastructure its report card includes: roads, bridges, transit, airports, schools, wastewater, dams, levees, and drinking water. Drinking water gets a D.
The drinking water report notes that the life expectancy for the system’s components is 15 to 95 years. Many of our older cities have an old infrastructure; some pipes date to the civil war. More than one million miles of pipe deliver water to people in this country. Currently 4,000 to 5,000 miles of pipe get replaced annually.
Given the way we fund water’s infrastructure, the costs fall heavily upon states and local governments. This makes funding water infrastructure challenging in municipalities with high levels of poverty, such as Flint, because property taxes are kept low, balancing municipal needs with residents’ incomes. As such they are not high enough. Federal money is available, but not enough. EPA estimates that $334.8 billion will be needed over 20 years for capital investments. However, Congress allocates an average of $1.38 billion annually or $27.6 billion over 20 years, about 8% of the need.
This gets to the second point. We’ve been suffering under two mindless perspectives on government, primarily promulgated by the Republicans for three decades. One, our government is too big. Two, we shouldn’t raise taxes and furthermore, should seek to cut them.
Smaller government means less oversight of its operations. Reduced taxes reduce available funds. The priority to fund stuff underground is not flashy. A politician can cut a ribbon to open a new bridge. Somehow turning on the tap and getting clean water doesn’t have the same pizzazz.
We’ve been fortunate that almost everywhere in this country we have a reliable supply of clean, drinkable water. We don’t give water a second thought.
Flint, though, is a wake up call.
There is plenty of blame and incompetence and callous disregard for the well-being of Flint’s residents. Some officials should go to jail.
However, Flint is one of many cities in America with a high rate of poverty with inadequate investments in its drinking water infrastructure. We have a political climate that downplays the important role government has in maintaining the common good. We also have many municipalities and states run by political leaders who actively disdain government.
As we move closer to the elections this year, we might want to think about each candidate’s perspective on the role government plays in our lives and how that candidate understands all the needs and obligations government must fund.