The national media, along with various activists and celebrities, are suddenly obsessed with my beleaguered hometown of Flint, Michigan, after it emerged that state officials ignored clear signs of lead poisoning in the city’s water supply. Rachel Maddow is outraged. Erin Brokovich is on the case. Jesse Jackson is there to offer spiritual guidance. Cher—yes, Cher—called Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder a “murderer” on Twitter for his alleged crimes against the former factory town that Michael Moore put on the map with Roger & Me.
I don’t blame them and the rest of the country for being angry. I’m angry, too. Who wouldn’t be? But I have to ask: What took you so long? I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I feel like people should have been reaching out to help about 30 years ago.
While the water crisis may be the most-high profile catastrophe in the city where General Motors was born, prospered and then skipped town, it’s certainly not the first that should make your blood boil. Consider that Flint has had one of the highest violent crime rates in the country for decades. Then there are the thousands of abandoned houses—many of them once home to middle-class autoworkers—that sit empty, acting as ramshackle crime incubators. As a result, arson is commonplace.
Oh, by the way, if you include the folks who have given up even looking for a job, the real unemployment rate is in the double digits. And Flint has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation—41.4 percent overall and 66.5 percent for children—so thousands of residents drinking poisoned water were already marginalized.
Unfortunately, I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
And what happens in Michigan when a city teetering on collapse encounters the inevitable budget shortfalls? The governor sends in an emergency manager to relieve democratically elected officials of their duties and supposedly put things in order. But in a place like Flint, there are limited ways to balance the books. Ultimately, draconian layoffs and budget cuts are seen as the only solution. So many cops got pink slips—the police force has been cut in half in the last decade—that there are times when not a single officer is patrolling the streets. Numerous fire stations have been shuttered over the years. And, of course, decisions like switching to Flint River water are made to save money, with disastrous results.
Perhaps irrationally, I’m still hoping that some sliver of good can come out of the water crisis. But simply dealing with the latest calamity without having a national conversation about why these bad things happen to places like Flint—and coming up with systematic, long-term solutions to stabilize the city—ensures that in five years we will be right back where we started.
Flint’s problems may seem outsized, but they are not isolated and hold dire lessons for the rest of America. A growing number of places throughout the country look a lot like my hometown, defined by persistent poverty, a crumbling infrastructure, and a populace that feels betrayed and abandoned. If you think your community is immune from these problems, I’d ask you to reconsider. A familiar line I’ve heard more than once around town is a warning we should all heed, regardless of where we live: “Flint, coming to a city near you.”
Donate to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to help solve the Flint Water Crisis.
Read Teardown to learn more about the past, present, and future of Flint through the eyes of the residents who have not given up on their city.