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What the Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan Tells Us About Austerity

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

Austerity is literally poisoning our children.

On January 5th, Republican governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, a majority African-American city northwest of Detroit, due to the presence of lead in the city’s drinking water. As a result of the contamination, the number of children with higher than average levels of lead in their blood has nearly doubled, threatening their cognitive development.

This crisis is the culmination of choices dating back to at least April 2014, when the (unelected) emergency managers in Detroit and Flint chose to cut costs by switching Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron (which Flint paid Detroit to access) to the Flint River, despite concerns that the river was polluted. As longtime Flint resident Rhonda Kelso told CNN, “We thought it was a joke. People my age and older thought, ‘They’re not going to do that.'”

Ordinarily Rhonda Kelso would be correct. But the rules of basic political responsiveness rarely apply to emergency managers, as they are given effectively absolute authority by the governor to implement austerity in cities that experience a “financial emergency.”

While ostensibly neutral, this policy disproportionately disenfranchises black Michiganders, who are more likely to live in de-industrialized, high-poverty areas. Indeed, by 2013, access to democratic governance had increasingly become a luxury reserved for white people, as almost 50 percent of Michigan’s black residents lived in cities with an emergency manager in place.

That’s left poor people of color, who are disproportionately women, to shoulder the weight of austerity’s excesses. Almost immediately following the switch, Flint’s residents found that the water pouring out of their taps was yellow. Then it got worse: the state’s failure to treat the water with an anti-corrosive agent (which would have cost as little as $100 per day) caused Flint’s pipes to deteriorate and contaminate the city’s water with lead.

State officials refused to publicly admit there was a problem for months. During that time, many residents lacked the means to protect themselves and their children; 41 percent of Flint lives below the poverty line. As The Washington Post reports:

Those who could afford it opted for bottled water, buying it by the gallons. Those who couldn’t spare the money drank it straight from the tap all the same, knowing that they would be paying for it later. When it came to bathing, some slowly filled bathtubs with pots of boiled water for their children.

At the same time as Flint’s residents were being poisoned in the name of saving money, Snyder ushered in about $1.7 billion worth of tax cuts for businesses. He also raised taxes on individuals, many of them low-income people, by nearly $900 million a year while disinvesting in education and social safety net programs. To add insult to injury, Snyder even prevented municipalities from raising their local minimum wages or requiring paid sick days.

This manmade disaster prompts the question: just how far will proponents of austerity go?

When measured against its own flawed goal of reducing public spending, austerity has proven utterly illegitimate in this case: whatever cost savings the emergency manager hoped to realize will be dwarfed by the $1.5 billion in necessary repairs to Flint’s water system. And of course, it’s low-income communities of color in Flint who will be left paying the price in the end.

Alyssa Peterson serves as a Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.  

Alyssa Peterson serves as a volunteer Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX.

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