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How racial segregation and political mismanagement led to Flint’s shocking water crisis

- February 8, 2016
The Flint River, near downtown Flint, Mich. (Paul Sancya/AP)

As much of the country knows by now, the water supply in Flint, Mich., is badly contaminated with lead. The water has poisoned an entire city and has probably irreparably damaged a significant share of Flint’s children. And it could have been prevented.

This is a story of political failure. The federal structure of overlapping and mismatched government authorities ensures that public services vary from place to place, and makes it easy for officials to pass the buck. Extreme residential segregation in the United States means that the people who are most likely to suffer in this system are the poor and people of color.

A little history of urban water

Flint’s is not the first case of harm caused by a municipal water supply. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a substantial mortality penalty to living in cities. Sewer and water systems were built before modern understanding of disease transmission developed. Many early sewers couldn’t handle growing populations and frequently overflowed into the streets.

Worse, some cities dumped unfiltered waste upstream of their water intake. In 1900, infectious and parasitic diseases killed nearly 8 in every 1,000 residents, accounting for more than 45 percent of all deaths and more than 60 percent of deaths among children.

Over the next 40 years, water filtration and sewage treatment led to dramatic health improvements, all but eliminating death by typhoid, cholera and diarrhea. But these benefits were neither inevitable nor universal. At the beginning of the 20th century, some cities spent as little as $100 per person on municipal services. Others spent more than $900. The well-off got better services, including better water.

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In the United States today, some people still have access to good schools, well-paved and plowed roads, sewers that never overflow, public parks with safe swing sets and restrooms, adequately staffed police and fire forces, clean water, and safety nets when their means are limited. Others do not.

All of that varies by neighborhood, city and state, a result of our federal system. Federalism means that different communities are allowed to raise and spend funds as they wish, whether or not to raise taxes, issue bonds, or replace lead water pipes.

The people who have access to high-quality public goods and services are more likely to be white and well off; those who do not are likelier to be racial or ethnic minorities and low income. That’s as true today as it was in 1900.

The tangle of systems bringing water to U.S. citizens

National, state and local governments all have authority over building public infrastructure and monitoring drinking-water quality. Water delivery is largely handled by municipal governments and special districts, creating a patchwork of systems.

A home-rule charter adopted by Flint residents in 1929 granted the city government the authority to install and maintain its own sewers and waterworks. Flint once was a boom town. Its population doubled between 1920 and 1960, and the city’s water supply from the Flint River could not keep up with the increased demand.

City leaders planned to build a pipeline to Lake Huron, but a local millionaire conspired with public officials to defraud the city in a land deal. Voters were disillusioned. Instead of building the pipeline, Flint entered into a 30-year contract to buy water from Detroit’s Water and Sewer System, leaving it at the mercy of Detroit’s decisions and price increases.

As the auto industry tanked, Flint went from boom to bust, losing roughly half of its population between 1960 and 2010. At the same time, city expenditures continued to rise. The general fund deficit had reached $26.6 million by 2001.

In the federal system, the national and state governments are sovereign. Cities are not. States delegate authority to cities to govern themselves – but they can also take that authority away. Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, was elected in 2010 on a platform promising austerity. One of his early moves was to take over insolvent local governments, placing them under state control with the goal of balancing their budgets. In 2011, Snyder appointed an emergency manager to govern Flint.

Michigan’s emergency managers have broad authority to cut expenses, reorganize city government and renegotiate city contracts. And – this is important — when under state control, local elected officials can exercise the powers of their offices only with the manager’s written approval.

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Emergency managers are accountable to the governor. In Flint’s case, this was a governor who did not receive a majority of the vote from the city’s residents. Flint was being ruled by an official who was not elected by or responsible to Flint’s residents. My work shows that when rulers are not accountable to their subjects, they have an easier time making decisions that defy the preferences and even best interests of those people.

In April 2014, supposedly to save money, the emergency manager changed Flint’s water source to the Flint River — a noxious, polluted body of water — while awaiting a new pipeline to the lake. We know now what happened next.

Who’s in charge?

Many of Flint’s water pipes are made of lead, and an additive needed to be added to the water to prevent that lead from leaching into the water. But it seems that none of the officials who could have made the choice to treat the water did so. Neither the Flint water staff, nor the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, nor an engineering firm hired by the emergency manager to upgrade the Flint water treatment plant determined that the water should include those critical corrosion-controlling additives.

And so, as the water corroded the pipes, those pipes delivered lead-poisoned water to Flint’s residents.

Residents began complaining about the water quality immediately, and experts pointed out elevated levels of contaminants, but it took nearly a year for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to document the problem. And even when it was discovered, MDEQ chose not to compel the Flint water staff and emergency manager to treat the water. After 18 months the water source was changed back, but the damaged pipes continued to leach lead.

Who was in charge? Everyone, and no one. Different people within Flint’s city government, the emergency manager, the Michigan governor’s office, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the state Department of Health and Human Services had —  and continue to have — a hand in managing Flint’s water quality and delivery.

This overlapping structure of  governments, with both appointed and elected officials, makes it possible for problematic decisions to slip through the cracks and makes it easy to shift blame.

But doesn’t the buck stop somewhere? Government institutions are structured so that an official at the top (whether a general or a governor) is the final decision-maker, responsible for what happens. In a democracy, elections hold these people at the top accountable.

Segregation now

But what happens when the democratic process is undermined? If Flint had been mostly white and mostly well off, it is possible that the MDEQ and governor would have listened more attentively. But what’s even more likely is that the deep financial woes that led to this series of disastrous choices would never have taken place.

Over the past 200 years, zoning policies, housing policies, lending policies and transportation policies passed by federal, state and local governments have contributed to the segregation of people of color and the poor. The spatial accumulation of disadvantaged means that some cities have the luxury of providing clean water to their residents — while others struggle, as is true in Flint, where more than 40 percent of residents live in households below the federal poverty line and 1 in 4 residents is unemployed.

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There are many different ways to measure segregation. One clear metric is the difference in racial demographics and household wealth between central cities and suburbs. In 2000, city/suburban differences in the Flint metro area were among the highest in the nation. Here’s how Flint fits:


Each dot represents a metropolitan area. Data are from the 2000 Census of Population and Housing. For each city, I calculated the share of households with incomes above $100,000/year and the share of residents identifying as non-Hispanic white. I then took the average for all non-central cities in the metro area and subtracted the city share from this average. Positive values mean that the suburbs have (on average) a higher share of wealthy or white residents.

A tale of two cities

Flint’s neighbor directly to the east is the city of Burton, which receives water from Lake Huron through Detroit’s system. Burton’s population is 86 percent white, the median household income is nearly $44,000 per year, and the median home is worth almost $75,000. In Flint, 64 percent of the residents are people of color, the median income is just under $25,000 per year, and the median home is worth about $42,000.

In 2012, Flint had a debt burden of about $1,600 per person, compared with only $400 in Burton. Between 2007 and 2012, many city governments saw expenditures fall as the recession took a toll on municipal budgets. In Flint, spending declined by $225 per resident — in Burton, spending actually increased by $1 per capita. And Flint residents pay the highest water and sewer fees in the metropolitan area. In 2014, the average water bill in Flint was $140, compared with only $58 in Burton.

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The fact that Burton has clean, inexpensive water and Flint does not is the result not just of the variation that federalism allows, but also of two centuries of accumulated structural racism (in which institutional forces that impose rules and laws by racial categories reinforce and reproduce racial inequalities). It is no coincidence that as Flint slid further away from economic stability, it was becoming a majority-black city.

Eventually this economically depressed, largely minority community was taken over by the state, which then proceeded to make a series of unsound decisions that no one in the many overlapping governmental agencies responsible for water quality managed to notice. When finally alerted to the problem, these officials tried to shuffle the blame rather than fix the problem.

Meanwhile, Flint’s neighboring white towns were able to provide good services and clean water for their residents. The structural benefits that brought them good housing, good jobs, good roads and good schools meant they have enough money to pay for those services and that their elected and appointed officials actually monitor the services, lest they lose their jobs.

So what could have been done in Flint? The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality should have recognized the problems with Flint’s water before the switch was made. Corrosion controlling additives should have been included from the outset.

Federal and state governments should be responsible for ensuring a minimum level of basic services. Clean water is a good place to start.

Jessica Trounstine is associate professor of political science at the University of California at Merced.