We’ve written this week about what happened to cause the Flint water crisis, who (if anyone) is being held accountable and what is being done by the current governor to ensure that a case of injustice at this magnitude doesn’t happen again. It’s difficult to give an exact prescription of how to prevent a story like Flint from happening again because throughout our history, low-income, minority communities like Flint have been neglected and forgotten. Flint is one of many Rust Belt cities that was built up around a thriving manufacturing industry (GM, in the case of Flint) and when these jobs abruptly left, the largely one-industry community was not able to grapple with the fallout. “Fixing” Flint is going to have to be part of a broader strategy to provide economic relief to other cities like it. In the same way that we must help former coal towns, our nation owes the people of industrial towns a helping hand for all that they’ve given our country.
However, with Flint comes that added shame of decades of racist policies that didn’t allow black Americans to benefit from the economic boom in the auto industry in the same way that white Americans were able to. As US News explained, decades of racist housing practices – including by General Motors – had ensured Flint’s black population remained concentrated, while the city proper, researchers Andrew Highsmith and Richard Sadler argue in a 2016 report, was also deliberately disadvantaged by policy. In the 1960s and ’70s, as the metro area expanded and people and money bled outward, suburbs – mostly white – passed laws that strengthened their own municipal power in order to hoard resources and block Flint’s expansion attempts. The state, embracing an economic model that espoused competition among municipalities instead of regional collaboration, cut off some $55 million in revenue to the city between 2003 and 2014 – only to appoint an emergency manager who would initiate the fateful water supply switch.
Even amidst all of the gross marginalization, the people of Flint have been tireless advocates for their city despite all the odds stacked against them. The city’s 20-year master plan, offers a vision of a far more livable, sustainable city, based around concentrated economic development, green spaces in place of neglected properties, and improved transit. It’s a highly ambitious plan, but many are buying in. The water crisis, experts and residents say, has also served as a kind of catalyst for change, bringing fresh energy and resources to decades-old problems – and channeling anger into activism. It’s also important to remember that financial burdens will continue to plague Flint mostly because its population and tax base is shrinking despite fiscal obligations (such as city pensions) that are unavoidable. Bottom line: Flint will need continued support from the state and federal level to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its citizens.