America first? What about Flint?

By Nathan Baumgartner

Opinion Contributor

Clean water, usually considered a near universally-accessible good in the United States, has turned out not to be so easily accessed in certain parts of the country. Though many communities, mine included, have experienced the occasional water main break for a couple days’ time at most, it remains relatively uncommon for communities in the United States to go nearly three years without sustainable access to clean water from the comfort of their own homes, let alone their own communities.

           Enter Flint, Michigan. Under pressure to reconcile declining city funds itself, starting in 2011, the city of Flint made the decision to transfer its source of water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River (via Detroit Water and Sewerage Department water) to the Flint River in April of 2014. The result of various public oversights and disregards, failure of city officials to utilize corrosion inhibitors began to expose Flint residents to lead contamination, with various sources estimating the concentration of lead in Flint drinking water to 20 parts per billion in 2016. Though the city of Flint has taken various steps to reduce the concentration of lead and other chemicals, which have previously given the drinking water an orange tint, it is estimated that the full effects of the water crisis as manifested through piping and corrosion inhibitors will last until 2019 at the earliest, per Flint spokeswoman Kristin Moore, at a rate of approximately 6,000 homes per year.

           Despite talks about the construction of a wall along the United States-Mexico border estimated to cost anywhere between US$12-15 billion, our President has remained silent about the ongoing impacts of what seems to be deliberate negligence towards a predominantly African American community since taking office last month. Though this comes after being used as a rallying point for our President’s campaign, the President has yet to take serious action regarding the water crisis, despite promising, on the campaign trail, federal monetary contributions designed to augment the ability of Flint to source their water from the Flint River in a safe and sustainable manner, therefore not putting the wellbeing of their citizens in further jeopardy.

           Yet somehow, he can draft overarching executive orders, ranging from travel restrictions on predominantly Muslim countries to revoking regulations on Wall Street intended to prevent the economic crisis of 2008 from occurring again. Through various informal legislative conventions, as well as federal laws, the President submits a budget request to Congress, about which he has provided no clear intent. Though we have not reached the end of the month, the President’s conflicting ideals with various executive agencies–such as the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration–seem to work against the President in terms of submitting a timely and accurate budget request. If the President cannot properly cooperate with federal agencies in a positive and fundamentally necessary manner, as evidenced through the setting up of rogue social media accounts by these agencies, it seems that it will be difficult-at-best for the Office of Management and Budget to submit a comprehensive and accurate budget request, and therefore challenge and influence Congress to take these requests from executive agencies into as full consideration as possible.

           Realistically speaking, we cannot and should not blame the President entirely for this water crisis, as it began long before our current presidential administration, for better or for worse. What we can and should criticize is the political culture through which budgetary cuts occur, how we come to extremes like Flint came to beginning in 2014, and how such devastating consequences can be manipulated and used to advance the political campaigns of individuals. Flint was presented with estimates of saving US$5 million over the course of less than two years by switching to the Flint River and treating water there. By December of 2014, amidst growing complaints from General Motors and Flint citizens about the taste, odor, color, and effects of the water on the human body and the manufacturing of car parts, the city had invested over US$ 4 million in its water plant. This put more financial constraints upon a city already dealing with a declining population, as traditional sources of employment and, thus, income began moving away. In 1960, according to the United States Census Bureau, the population of Flint was 196,940; in 2014, various estimates sourced from CNN place the population of the city at 99,002, inherently leaving Flint with a reduced ability to provide the same amount of services at the same quality as was the case nearly 60 years ago.

           Yet we cannot blame NAFTA – and, as an extension, free trade – entirely for this situation, which is what our President has stated on social media platforms, exhibiting how the President relates to this situation. General Motors – the biggest employer of Flint citizens for the longest time – began the downsizing process in Flint in 1986, well in advance of the drafting and adopting of NAFTA in the 1990s. The problems experienced by Flint remain unfortunately typical for various communities throughout the Great Lakes, such as nearby Detroit and even Buffalo, which have experienced similar downward trends in population, incomes per capita, and unemployment. A structural change in the economy is needed, much like what has happened in Pittsburgh, as well as Buffalo’s sister city Dortmund, which experienced significant losses in their traditional sources of income ( in both cases, coal production) and have switched to a more service-oriented economy. Though certain segments of the economy in both cities have undergone a structural change more slowly than others, these changes are part of the realities not of a world becoming increasingly interested in freer – and even fairer – trade, but as industrialized parts of the world become post-industrial. These are aspects of the situation experienced in Flint which need to be taken into consideration; we must ensure not only that the current situation of unsafe drinking water is rectified quickly, but also that it does not happen again.

           Despite the problems experienced by Flint, it seems that the outlook of the city of Flint – and thus, the prospects of the average citizen of Flint – becomes brighter and brighter every day. The University of Michigan, which Flint has announced plans to expand into their downtown area, is bringing more opportunities to the city than have been seen since General Motors began downsizing thirty years ago. Entrepreneurs attracted by Flint’s low housing prices – likely a consequence of high crime rates and high arson rates fueled by the economic crisis of 2008 – are starting to move in. As these people with more disposable income come in, I expect unemployment rates to go down, incomes per capita to rise, and general crime rates to decrease. As this happens, I expect the financial abilities for Flint to become augmented as time goes on. Until then, the city of Flint will need help in alternative ways than just placing its finances in the hands of a restructuring committee, as was the case beginning in 2011.

           This situation is about more than just water, although that remains a critical part of it. More needs to be done, and I encourage everyone to implore our federal government, as well as officials in Michigan and the city of Flint, to work to find a solution to this crisis, as, in the words of Nontombi Naomi Tutu, “we actually needed the people of Flint to remind the people of this country what happens when political expediency, when financial concerns, overshadow justice and humanity.” Using Flint as an aspect of a political campaign innately remains acceptable and commendable, as it connotes that there is something wrong and something must be done. What remains wrong about this situation is that our current President has promised an “America First” policy, through which the United States will experience a supposedly consistent primary focus in the contexts of foreign and domestic policies, but seems not to deliver upon such promises. To this end of delivering upon his promises, I challenge our President to readdress the ongoing situation in Flint and to augment the capacities of officials in the city to rectify this issue, not just as it manifests itself but also addressing the root causes of such an issue so that they do not happen again.

           Water may have a price tag, but humanity, compassion, and Twitter accounts do not.

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