The catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, can be viewed through many prisms.
First and foremost, it’s a health-related horror. An unfortunate switch in the city’s drinking water exposed nearly 9,000 children younger than 6 to dangerously high levels of lead. This can cause severe difficulties in mental and physical development, such as lower IQs and behavioral problems, especially for young children. The impact in Flint might be felt for decades.
Flint also can be interpreted as a case of environmental racism, since officials allowed the problem to fester for nearly two years in a city where a majority of the residents are black.
The disaster can be seen as a warning to the nation. As many as 6 million miles of aging lead pipes still carry water, most of them vulnerable to the same leaching of lead that happened in Flint. Cities that discovered unsafe lead levels in recent years include Durham, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Brick Township, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C.
But perhaps most profoundly, Flint is a stunning example of government ineptitude. To be clear: Every level of government failed in Flint. The actions and inaction of officials from the city of Flint, the state of Michigan, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency all contributed to the crisis. Their disgraceful performance led many other cities, organizations and individuals around the country to donate bottled water to the residents of Flint.
But this debacle is no anomaly. It takes its place in a long line of government breakdowns. Flint holds up a mirror to our current political debate, and serves as a powerful metaphor for the nation’s discontent.
People want government to work — whether they believe it should be big or small, whether they want to spend more on it or less, whether their political party is in charge or not.
In last week’s New Hampshire primary, voters overwhelmingly chose two candidates — Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump — with the same core message: Government has failed the people it’s supposed to serve.
On the local level, it’s the official corruption that robs us of honest leadership, the permiting process that never ends, the toxic waste that gets dumped in a park, the taxes that only bloat bureaucracy.
But these failures also are writ large, as they were in Flint.
In recent years:
n The Department of Veterans Affairs was roiled by scandal after dozens of veterans died because of lengthy delays in getting appointments for medical treatment.
n The Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose job is to help people recover from disasters, continues to get it wrong time and time again, as Long Island saw with Sandy.
n Government is losing the war with cyber hackers, who seem capable of stealing computer data at will.
n Congress is crippled. Statesmanship is lost and partisanship trumps compromise.
n Billions of dollars have been wasted for decades to counter systemic poverty, substandard education and other urban ills, no matter which party was in power.
And then there’s Flint.
In January 2014, the cash-strapped city changed its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move made by a state-appointed emergency manager who was put in charge to handle the financial crisis. The city failed to treat that water with an anti-corrosive agent that stops old pipes from leaching lead.
As resident complaints mounted and tests found lead and other chemicals, Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials downplayed results. The EPA’s Midwest division head shamefully sat on a field report warning of problems. Even after definitive proof of high lead levels, state officials said the water complied with federal standards.
It wasn’t until mid-October that Flint finally changed back to Detroit’s water. Then in January, in response to withering criticism, Snyder and President Barack Obama declared separate states of emergency in Flint.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized Michigan’s response and Sanders, her rival, called for Snyder’s resignation in the Democratic debate on Jan. 17. Both again mentioned Flint in Thursday night’s debate and continue to refer to it in their campaigns. And the party will hold its next debate in that city on March 6. Hopefully, that will help. Republican candidates speak often of government failures but they, too, need to address this fiasco and the dangers of lead poisoning to children’s health.
Flint must be discussed again and again because the reverberations are huge. They renew our demand that government be effective, and force us to consider what role it should play in our lives.
If the EPA cannot protect our health, does it have too many responsibilities or not enough resources or misguided focus or inept personnel?
Should the federal government provide health care for veterans or should that be privatized?
Should FEMA’s model of disaster response be blown up and drawn anew?
It’s time for a serious conversation about how to make government work.
Some involved in Flint’s debacle have lost their jobs. The blame game is well underway. But the people of Flint — and the nation — deserve much more than that.