Government Didn’t Fail Flint, Austerity Did

What has happened to the city's water is just the latest example of the human costs of cutting, cutting, cutting.
by | February 16, 2016

Lee Saunders

President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

There's plenty of blame to go around for the disaster in Flint, Mich. Officials at every level failed to do what they needed to do to protect the people of Flint. The result will be years, even decades, of suffering for thousands of families exposed to lead and other contaminants in the water. But while we can point to different people, different agencies and different moments in time when someone, somewhere, should have acknowledged or fixed the problem, what we need to identify is the fundamental root cause of the disaster.

The poisoning of Flint's residents isn't some out-of-the-blue occurrence. It isn't a coincidence. It's a consequence of a governing philosophy that puts austerity first and people last. It's a consequence of letting our infrastructure crumble. It's a consequence of an economic ideology that regards public services as costly and unnecessary, as though a clean, healthy and safe community isn't the essential right of every citizen.

From the day he took office, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had his sights set on big cuts to public services. He gutted police budgets, health programs and schools. And one of his first cuts was to Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, the very department charged with keeping drinking water safe. At the same time, he passed hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts through the legislature. That, combined with cuts in revenue sharing, meant that local governments like Flint that depend on the state faced severe shortfalls.

The result was inevitable: The city of Flint suffered a terrible tragedy because the governor of Michigan doesn't like government.

The decision to temporarily switch to the Flint River for the city's water supply was a cost-cutting measure imposed by an unelected "emergency manager" appointed by Snyder. Whatever Flint saved will now cost the city and the state much more in emergency response, infrastructure improvements and damages for those affected for years to come. It's not just Michiganders who will pay the price; a likely federal bailout could put all American taxpayers on the hook for this costly experiment in austerity.

The corroded pipes that leached lead into Flint's water supply have also corroded the trust that people nationwide have in their governments. That, too, is no coincidence, but a direct consequence -- and even a goal -- of that same philosophy of austerity.

Politicians like Snyder come into office urging mistrust of government and a belief that it is fundamentally ill suited to the task of, well, governing. They then set out to prove their beliefs correct. Snyder used a combination of budget cuts, tax cuts and unelected emergency managers to render the governments of places like Flint ineffective. Then they suggest privatizing services like schools, prisons, and yes, even the water supply. But privatization doesn't make these services any more effective. It only serves to enrich the privateers.

There are certain fundamental things we depend on government to provide in order to give all Americans a level playing field. We expect public schools to provide an education to every child. We expect safe roads so we can get from place to place. And when we turn on the tap, we assume the water that comes out is safe to drink. Instead, we have crumbling, moldy schools, bridges collapsing and water that poisons our children. In turn, Americans trust government less and less. It's the perfectly predictable result of our obsession with austerity.

There's a better way. Instead of trying to cut our way to prosperity, we should focus on supporting and growing the middle class. Raising wages. Securing entitlements and the social safety net. Making sure Wall Street and big business don't continue to squeeze every last breath from workers for stagnant wages that buy less every year, while pocketing bigger and bigger profits. And spending what we need to spend to provide the infrastructure that enables our communities to be prosperous and safe.

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist famously said he'd like government to be small enough to drown in a bathtub. With pro-austerity politicians like Rick Snyder in charge, you may not have to bother drowning the government. The water in the tub will already be poison.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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