1. Governance
April 19, 2016updated 02 Aug 2021 11:55am

The story of Flint, Michigan, shows why you can’t cut your way to prosperity

Congressman Dan Kildee represents Michigan’s 5th district in the US House of Representatives. On Friday, he addressed the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s 2016 Journalists Forum about the lead poisoning crisis in his hometown of Flint. (Drew Reed covered the story for CityMetric in February.) What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks.

There are a lot of Flint, Michigan’s in this country – more than I think most of us want to admit. Communities that have had a very strong history, like my hometown, but that have really struggled to make this transition from the old to the new economy.

In 1908, GM was founded in Flint, Michigan, and we had a pretty good run. In fact, in the 1930s, it was the workers in Flint that occupied the factories that actually got the first UAW-General Motors contract, that helped set the stage to build a really strong middle class – not just in Flint or in the region, but really contributing to the really strong middle class that we saw grow throughout the United States. Part of that basic bargain where workers enjoy a fair share of the productive capacity that they contribute to.

But of course, things change. Flint is a city that never had a population of more than 200,000. But there was a moment, in 1976, when we had 79,000 people working for that company. For one company. In a city about 200,000, in a metro of about 450,000. So this was a one company town.

Lots of older industrial cities have gone through this same story. What happened over the decades after the 1970s, due to factors clearly beyond the control of city leadership, a literal tidal wave of economic distress came over this city, as we saw those jobs simply go away. Globalisation, changes in the economy, technology, basically undermined the economy of this town. And of course other factors: racial avoidance, people leaving the city.

It left behind a community that was really struggling to find its way forward. To the point that twice in the last decade, the city actually went into receivership, was taken over by the state of Michigan.

The solution that came from the state was to appoint a financial receiver – an emergency manager – with authority to suspend the authority of the charter, suspend the role of the mayor and the city council, and have absolute authority to make decisions for the city, but only one tool: the ability to cut costs. Not to bring new investment, not to assist the city with its path forward in any substantial way, but simply deal with the balance sheet.

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What we have learned in Flint now – twice – is that measuring the quality of a community by looking at its annual financial report is a huge mistake. Cities are not municipal corporations. Municipal corporations are formed to provide services to cities. But cities are communities of people, they are social organisms. They live on well beyond the limited role that its government plays.

So the notion that we can take concepts that really are born in the speculative end of the private sector, and translate them to the management of a city, are pretty scary thoughts. And this is what we’ve experienced in Flint.

It costs money to properly treat the water, and that was money that was not in the budget

The emergency manager in Flint made a whole series of choices to cut costs to get that city into balance – or at least get its ledger in balance. And one of the decisions, of course, was the decision to temporarily move away from the use of the Great Lakes – Lake Huron, our primary drinking water source – and use the Flint River. This river had water in it, and we took water from it.

The problem was this: because it cost money to manage these systems, it costs money to properly treat the water, and that was money that was not in the budget. This city had highly corrosive water running through its system, leaching lead into the drinking water, and that lead going into the bodies of 100,000 people.

On one hand, and by the measure that these emergency managers in our state evaluated, it was a very successful year because they got the ledger in order. They returned the city to some form of municipal fiscal solvency. But it was a completely unsustainable community at that point in time.

I never would have imagined the consequence being so dramatic. I mean, we would think about the consequences of those sorts of decisions resulting in a community that fails to compete effectively – that has a relatively low level of service, that it’s slow when the police are called or when the fire department is called, and the parks are not mowed, and there’s this sort of slow cascade of decline, which we have seen over the decade.

But in this case, it was a decision that aligns with those same sorts of thoughts – that the dollars and cents and the balance sheet comes first – that lead to a community that now has had its children, 9,000 children under the age of six, poisoned by levels of lead way, way above the federal action level.

A member of the Army National Guard ready to hand out bottled water to Flint residents in February 2016. Image: Getty.

I have heard from people who have said to me, “Oh yeah, we have a lead problem in our community as well.” Well the federal standard is 15 parts per billion of lead in the drinking water. When we see households testing at 150, at 1,500, at 9,000, at 13,000 parts per billion, we’re talking about a poisoning of a population that has consequences that will last for generations.

How did this happen? It’s an obsession with austerity as the solution to a financial problem. We hear this, not just when it comes to cities like Flint, but we hear it as a part of a national conversation – this worship of the notion that austerity as a principle somehow is something to be pursued. It literally challenges the notion of what it takes to live in a civil society.

So in Flint, we have a community that has gone through now its third and most severe struggle. The first set of struggles were this process of decline resulting from the loss of the auto industry: 79,000 jobs at one point, now about 8,000 in Flint. And the community of course made its own mistakes by not thinking way ahead in the beginning to diversify its economy when it had the economic strength in order to do that. When it had the capacity to invest in itself.

But these cities, in my hometown especially, don’t have the capacity to invest in themselves. There’s no wealth or economic activity sufficient, even if we had a sales tax, to generate enough revenue to create the kind of place that would be attractive to other people.

Even today the water in Flint is not safe to drink

How can Flint be a place that is attractive, when not only has it gone through all these big problems that it has faced over the decades, but now is a community that can’t deliver drinking water? Even today the water in Flint is not safe to drink. This has been going on for two years. I mean you may have only heard about it for the last several months, but for two years this has been a problem in my hometown.

There is a mythology about these older cities that it is corruption or mismanagement that has led to their decline. But very often, there are drivers that go well beyond the control of those individuals in charge. And I think we have to acknowledge that we have a system of municipal finance – at least in my state, and I know in some other states – that’s completely inadequate to deal with the needs of these places.

If we acknowledge that it is in our national interest to have cities like Flint succeed, and if it is in our state’s interest to have cities like Flint to succeed, and in the region’s interest to have cities like Flint succeed – why do we ask or tell these cities that it is entirely up to them to right themselves? It can’t be done.

For the lack of some state support, the state of Michigan – which appointed the financial manager to take over the city of Flint – contributed to the city’s decline. Not just with a policy that made it easy to draw wealth and economic activity out of the community and into greenfields. Not just that, but at the same time, by reducing direct support to the city.

The city of Flint has a general fund budget of about $50m, but in the last decade has lost over $60m in direct support from the state itself. I’m old enough to remember federal revenue sharing. We had a belief that these places mattered enough, that it wasn’t just up to them to be able to provide the services to be the interesting, cool, vibrant productive place that it should and can be.

We have calculated the cost of making it right for the people in Flint, by helping rebuild their infrastructure to get it back to the point that it can actually deliver drinkable water. To offset the cost associated with helping those 9,000 children overcome the additional hurdle that they face as a result of a neurotoxin for two years going into their brains and affecting their development. Even if we can’t think about it in moral terms, there is a cost associated with this neglect of older communities that are having a difficult time finding their way from the old to the new economy.

In my recovery bill, I suggest [the cost] should be shared equally by the state and federal government. Over a decade, it will take $1.5bn – just to get these kids the help they need, just to do the modest things to take to help rebuild their economy and fix their infrastructure.

You cannot sell off a town

In the short term, the decisions that were made balanced the books in Flint – by one measure of success, that might be the measure that a venture capitalist uses, when thinking about acquiring and selling or dismantling companies. You can’t do that. You can’t apply those same principles in a community that has to go on. You cannot sell off a town.

So there is a cost. There is a cost that somebody is going to bear. Whether the federal and state governments come together to make it right for Flint or not, there is a huge cost. That cost will be born, sadly if we don’t help this community, it will be borne by a criminal justice system, by our educational system, by our social service network.

I saw a really interesting study not long ago, that looked at crime rates and related them to New York’s effort, some number of years ago, to get after enforcement of lead in households. And you saw a reduction in the crime rate that followed 10 or 12 years after that significant enforcement against lead in households.

A local seven year old at a protest about Flint’s poisoned water supply, in February 2016. Image: Getty.

What does that say to my hometown? What does that say to the effect and the cost my community will bear? If an entire generation of kids will have their brain development affected by this neurotoxin, what will happen to the two-, three-, four-, five-, and six-years-olds in Flint when they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen? And who will bear that cost? There’s a huge social cost that they will bear.

Their lives will be affected permanently unless we do something to make it up to them to help them get through this. To give them the experiences that we all would give our own children if they were facing a developmental hurdle. Smaller class sizes, early childhood education, good nutrition, afterschool programs, enrichment opportunities – the things that we do for our own kids to help stretch their brains, to help them overcome a developmental challenge. We now have a moral and financial obligation to do that for the 9,000 children in Flint.

That costs a lot of money: $1.5bn. The cost of this obsession with austerity that says that the balance sheet is the ultimate measure of a success of a community, for the lack of a few million dollars – or even the lack of a $140 a day, which is what it would have cost to treat the water with a corrosion control agent, less than $50,000 for the entire year. For the lack of that investment, there will be a cost born either by the government to make it right, or by an entire generation of kids who will suffer as a result.

There are consequences to the fact that we have not addressed the need to support these older communities that are struggling – and it is a consequence too much for us to bear.

Congressman Dan Kildee represents Michigan’s 5th district in the US House of Representatives, where he is currently pushing for a federal aid package for Flint.

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