If Flint is to be opened up and examined, first there must be knowledge of the city’s background and how Flint came to be. The autopsy of Flint does show a preventable man-made disaster. However, it does not show the disaster that virtually destroyed Flint happening overnight. President Barack Obama said that although what is happening in Flint is extreme, it is not unique.
When the President of the United States visited Flint, Michigan, on May 5, 2016, he brought up and called out the fact that there is a consensus, which he referred to as a “myth,” coming from the other side of the political aisle, telling the public that the Federal Government is the enemy. “Our government is us,” he said. “It is not the enemy.”
The radical right Tea Party Movement is about less government and more morality. They espouse a stronger emphasis on less government. Some of the government employees that were cut by Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) did play a role in what happened in Flint, by giving more responsibility and a heavier workload to a significantly lower number of people.
A proper comparison would be that of the BP oil spill in 2010 when the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had only 56 inspectors to oversee 3,500 production facilities that operate 35,591 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. This means roughly 635 oil rigs were assigned to each person for inspection. According to regulations, all the rigs needed to be inspected at least once a month. Therefore, in order to do so, an inspector had to check 2.5 wells per day, five days a week, every week for the entire year.
With Conservative members of the state often putting their budgets ahead of public health and environmental safety, is the Tea Party’s agenda and their fiscal way of spending, or lack thereof, to blame for the Flint water crisis?
After all, in a sit-down interview Gov. Snyder had with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff of the Detroit News, Snyder admitted that the crisis in Flint occurred due to efforts to save $2 million, or 1/10 of 1 percent of the state’s annual budget (0.001%), by switching water systems to the Flint River, instead of the water they sourced before from Detroit.
This reflects a lot of numbers for such a minuscule percentage. Studies show numbers of great or little value tend to lose meaning and understanding when they are too big or small to put into context. With that being said, in order to put that percentage in perspective, say a person was given a $100 budget, and in order to save $.10 cents for themselves, that person knowingly made a decision that tied tens of thousands of lives, including that of children, to a railroad track in the path of a freight train filled with cargo, consisting of irreversible mental and physical harm.
That is what 1/10 of 1 percent looks like and that is exactly what the Tea Party conservative governor of Michigan admitted to doing. That 0.001 percent gave 200 children under the age of six elevated blood lead levels, and another 9,000 children under the age of six have been exposed to lead, according to early reports by MSNBC.
There are no safe levels of lead for a child, and the problem with tests such as these is that once they find lead in a child’s blood level, it is already too late. Nothing can be done. Therefore, where is the morality? The Tea Party, which is also referred to as the American Taliban, due to the number of radical religious extremists associated with the group that have now come to power.
The Tea Party is also pegged with a reputation of loving America but hating Americans. It makes it difficult to argue the other side of such claims when one has the numbers and knowledge of what occurred with the likes of Flint.
This begs the question–are the same Tea Party members that hijacked the Republican Party and took away the majority of the seats on Capitol Hill from any Conservative, who leans even slightly moderate, to blame for the crisis in Flint, as well?
This question is not easily answered. First, it is important to understand the story of the city and its economic downfall, which created the eyesore tragedy recognized today as Flint.
Once upon a time, there was a rich industrial kingdom, often referred to as Detroit. This kingdom was made rich with turn-of-the-century inventions made by men who were revered and known as heroes and became legends, never to be forgotten. Not only by the Kingdom of Detroit, but soon enough, the world.
One of these revered men was named Ford, Henry Ford. He was not the King of the Kingdom, but he was what Galileo was to the Medics, or what Michelangelo was to the Pope. Ford had creations that would put a name and a face to an era. His fame, just as Galileo’s, just as Michelangelo’s, far surpassed those of whom they served.
Ford birthed the automobile and the concept of the assembly line to the world, forever changing it in the meantime. There are few who remember who the Henry the Great served beneath in the Kingdom of Detroit, just as most were not aware who, or even that, Galileo or Michelangelo served under men with more power
The industrial Kingdom of Detroit had been rapidly growing in population before Ford’s world-changing Model-T. The Progressive Movement, along with progressivism itself, was sweeping the nation and Detroit was at the center of it all.
There was no better place for Ford to have created the automobile than in the heart of the Rust Belt, which was a common reference to the industrial Northeastern cities of the country that straddled Lake Michigan. The Rusty Belt stretched from New York to Illinois, touching parts of Wisconsin.
The Progressive Era created a lust among common folk for a better life, similar to what the country saw during the Gold Rush of 1849. However, the Progressive Movement brought something the country had never seen before–a middle class.
Ford’s automobile was ready for the market in 1908, set at an affordable price for the public at $815. The equivalent to $21,730 in today’s day in age, according to a book written by Richard Bak. The price also dropped every year and not due to lack of popularity. Quite the opposite.
Ford’s automobile birthed the term “Fordism,” or a mass production of inexpensive goods, yet still high wages for the workers. To put it in a perspective that may be better understood in the year 2016: Fordism is the complete and utter opposite of what corporations are notoriously doing now.
The Model-T popularity did not slow and by 1920, just twelve years after the initial release the majority of Americans across the land, from sea to shining sea, were able to operate the car. Times were good. Demand overwhelmed the supply and jobs became available to any person willing to work.
The birth of a middle class did a great deal for this country. One advantage was it took the United States out of the Dark Ages. It gave the U.S. its moniker as the Land of Opportunity. The middle class gave immigrants, African-Americans, independent women, and many other demographics an opportunity for a fair and good life for all; no longer the select few. None fewer than Southerners, moving to Michigan for their shot at a better life, as well. (Something that would play a major part in the years to come.)
The automobile industry grew in both size and competition, but the car remained the heartbeat of a country’s rising economy. Some competition set-up shop right next to Ford in Detroit. Other competitors, like Buick and GM, moved their manufacturing business to places like Flint.
From a city’s prosperity and legacy, a name was birthed and a culture born. The Motor City. Better remembered now as “Motown,” and the country would forever be changed once again by the Motown generation.
And this is where the story begins. The automobile filled the Kingdom of Detroit and other industrial cities alike, all across the Rust Belt with a great deal of promise and a shot at a fruitful life. In the end, it would be the automobile industry that would wreck these cities by moving their business elsewhere. Meanwhile, leaving their people to rot in the now vacant rat-run cities.
Some were lucky enough to get out. Detroit became and remains the only city in the history of the United States to have a population exceed a million, only to fall under as the years went on and the jobs dried up to near extinction.
Those that came from the South stayed, as did the Southern values they brought with them. Soon, Michigan would become known as one of the most racially divided and hostile states above the Mason-Dixon Line. The resulting racism would become evident in the neglect and downfall of the Flint crisis.
Walk anywhere in town and it is easy to see remnants of a forgotten, abandoned, decadent, and depraved city that once existed here. A closer look at Flint will show a lot of things–negligence, laziness, corruption, incompetence, and the list goes on. However, one thing that will be left off that list is coincidence.
Flint is important, not only because of the crisis, but because this is an autopsy of industrial America. Flint just happened to be the first domino to fall. President Barack Obama addressed Flint residents on May 5, 2016, calling the circumstances a “man-made disaster.” Moreover, he also stated that what happened to Flint was “avoidable.”
President Obama also said that “poor decisions were made.” He spoke with brief optimism about all that is being done and all that will be done to make sure Flint is helped. “The bad news is,” he continued, “is that this should never have happened in the first place.”
Snyder admitted to being told about contamination in the drinking water in February 2015, when reports came into his office showing that Flint’s water showed traces of discoloration, fecal material, and chlorine. Snyder received two similar reports later that year, in both June and July, claiming the same thing. This time, adding that the water now showed signs of lead contamination.
Back against the ropes, the Michigan governor admitted to LeDuff later in that interview that he received a third briefing on Sep. 28, 2015, confirming the reports given to him earlier that year. Snyder also claims that both the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services assured him that these were “isolated cases.”
“Lead aside,” LeDuff asked. “How could you not known that water was toxic for a year and a half?” To which Snyder deflected and defended the question by saying, “The topic of lead did not come up.” When asked again, lead aside, why did the governor not switch back to the Detroit water? Snyder repeated a phrase he used numerous times during the interview: “It’s not that simple.”
Snyder said he was responsible for what happened with Flint and also that he was disappointed in the people who worked for him, “To be blunt, [they] let us all down.” It has been stated by LeDuff and the sources he has inside and throughout the state, that Snyder’s style of governing has given him “czar-like power,” and that this could have happened because he has “created a culture of government where the underlings of this bureaucracy wanted to please him.”
As much as Snyder is to blame for the water crisis in Flint, it is not just Flint facing this dilemma. One report from USA Today shows that there are 2,000 water systems spanning across all 50 states that have found excessive lead levels. The Wall Street Journal states that there are 7.3 million lead service lines running across the country, many of which “cities often don’t know where such lines are buried.”
The majority of countries banned lead by the 1920s. America, however, was a bit late to the party, as they still had lobbyists fighting Congress all throughout the ’60s and ’70s. As a result, lead pipes were not banned until 1986. Meanwhile, the average school building in the United States was built in the 1970s. Brass pipes, which are virtually lead-free, were not developed and made available until 2014.
Flint was a rare case of the country’s bigger problem because most children with high blood lead levels do not get it through drinking water, whether at home or in their schools. They are more likely to be exposed to excessive lead levels through the paint in older buildings or homes. As harmful as the lead in pipes can be, they are not as harmful as the lead present in paint and lead paint dust.
According to the American Healthy Homes Survey, an estimated 2.1 million homes have reported elevated lead and arsenic findings, with both lead dust exposure and children under the age of six living inside these homes. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 535,000 children between 1-5 years old already have elevated blood lead levels.
These children that are exposed to, or face a greater risk of being exposed to lead, occur predominantly in Eastern urban areas, with 92 percent of all high-risk level cases located in highly urban areas. Other high-risk regions include urban industrial areas, such as those associated with the Rust Belt, which both Flint and Detroit are encompassed within.
Other industrial cities, such as New York City and Chicago, also face high risks of lead contamination. Chicago, being at the highest risk of a major city in the country, with 23 percent of geographical areas, or census tract, at risk-level 10 out of 10. New York City is second with 20 percent. However, there are smaller cities with populations under 150,000 with extreme risk levels. Cities like New Bedford, Massachusetts, Utica, New York, and Rockford, Illinois, all of which suffer more than 40 percent of entire census tract at risk-level 10 of 10.
Rockford, Illinois, an old industrial city, which once played a major role in the success of the Rust Belt and the Industrial Age. Moreover, it also serves as the home of the Rockford Peaches, the team spearheaded by Tom Hanks in the movie, A League of Their Own (1992). Once the screw capital of the world, it is still referred to as “Screw City” by locals. It is also known as the third most “miserable city in America,” just behind Flint and Detroit, according to Forbes. Furthermore, it is notoriously known as the city with the most churches per capita, and somewhat ironically, also ranks near the top in the country in terms of crime per capita.
The “city clean-up” by Mayor Larry Morrissey and other local urban developers, such as Justin Fern and Joseph James, has not accomplished much, as 42 percent of Rockford is at risk-level 10. Moreover, 77 percent of the city is still at extreme lead risk levels of seven or above. Those that are not in harm’s way are safe on Rockford’s east side of the Rock River, which is a tributary of the Mississippi River.
The east side of the city, which is a suburban area that is strictly white, held protests in their yards and streets of the neighborhood when the (RHA) Rockford Housing Association and the city teamed up to try to unstack families living on top of each other in public housing projects. They hoped to bring down the crime rate by bringing them to safety via spreading out the population east of the river. However, the only concern of anything going down from those living on the east side was their property values.
Although the well-populated eastern parts of the country are where the majority of the risk of lead exposure lies, there are also rural states, such as Kansas and Nebraska, that find themselves with large swaths that risk lead exposure. Ninety-two percent of all rural areas in Nebraska alone have a lead level risk of six or greater. Meanwhile, well over half the country’s rural census areas are at risk levels of six or above for lead exposure.
Health departments all across the nation have been ignoring or silencing the knowledge they have about lead exposure due to the economic harm that the knowledge could lead to. Companies and corporations are already looking for any reason to take their businesses overseas.
Surili Patel, the American Public Health Association’s senior program manager for environmental health, said she, and many like her, worry about “a domino effect” with businesses deciding to pull out of potentially high-risk areas, and prices and/or real estate values skyrocketing in low-risk areas.
Those in the business of studying lead exposure and where the high-risk areas are refer to it as “the side effects of knowing.” However, even with the 72,241 census tracts across the country, risk levels can never be certain. As Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver who studies effects of low-level lead exposure in children, said recently, “We don’t know where the problem is. We don’t know where to target our resources to protect kids.”
With cities and states being of no such help since neither are required to report data on children with lead poisoning, only one percent of children have been tested for blood lead levels, as the testing of students is a very expensive procedure. The governing agencies of most states are not willing to pay for such testing, especially states under Tea Party Conservatives. This is due to the fact that testing children will expand not only government spending but government jobs, as well.
The other scenario is that there are a lot of state budgets that simply will not be able to afford such testing or even come close to being able to afford the pipe removal. Fifteen years ago, the Federal Government was all for the removal of lead exposure. They even hired a group to do the estimates. The study was called the Federal Strategy Targeting Lead Paint Hazards of the Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning and it was created in February 2000, right around the time the talk of lead removal stopped. The costs for a nationwide lead removal program was estimated to be $16.6 billion annually over a 10 year period. At the time, that would have been an estimated cost of $170 billion over a decade.
However, some environmentalists have remarked that estimate is debatable and likely much lower than anticipated. Flint, Michigan alone was granted $55 million to fix their lead pipe dilemma, and there were Lansing government officials saying that number would not be sufficient.
This begs the question–what happens when the walls cave in and government officials are no longer able to maintain public safety and health standards? After all, this is one of their main responsibilities as elected officials. At this point, one wonders how can government still be thinking of making more cuts, building walls, deporting illegal immigrants, cutting health care, or increasing military funding that is already in the trillions? With the wealth gap bringing the country closer each day to the Dark Ages from whence it all began, there has not been a more critical time, since the Great Depression, for more government aid and involvement.
Mike Bryson, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, said in an interview via phone that with the effects of lead being irreversible, the testing needed “unfortunately” would not be of help to those already affected, but rather to pinpoint the areas in which the exposure is coming from, in hopes of preventing future exposure. He also stated that once the exposed lead areas are narrowed down, they can begin a costly pipe removal process.
There is a well-known correlation between lead exposure and poverty. Cities that have removed lead from the area have seen crime rates drop drastically. There is also an economic benefit when it comes to lead removal from schools and the city, according to studies from the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). EHPs “conservative estimates” show that each dollar invested in lead hazard control and keeping children free from the effects of lead results in an average 17-to-1 return over a few years.
With such a huge return, what part of government would oppose the notion to invest federal spending in improving the infrastructure for poor areas that are at risk of lead exposure, such as Flint? Professor Bryson pointed out during the interview that a closer look would show that there is a single demographic that “stood out from all the rest” when it comes to feeling the effects of this controversy. He said it was “blatantly clear” and brought up the fact that it took nearly two years before Flint, a residential demographic that is majority black, to be heard. Almost two years before they received the help, aid, and resources they needed.
Ultimately, Flint received the help it needed because it was an extreme case regarding the water contamination. Problems arose that went far beyond lead and it was getting global attention, thanks to the homemade videos sent to the media of the discolored, grimy tap water. The problem with lead elsewhere is that it is a silent killer. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.
The Tea Party is not notoriously known for their kindness towards the black community. Just take a look at what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has done with black imprisonment in his tenure. Tea Party members across the nation have gone to tremendous lengths to create voting laws making it as difficult as possible for minorities in the United States to get to the polls.
If a vote is not able to be captured, the next best thing is for that vote not to be cast at all. More than half the country has proposed or already implemented voter ID laws. Thirty-two of the 33 voter ID laws, as of 2012, were proposed by Republican legislators, then passed by Republican-controlled State House and signed into law by Republican governors.
The estimated amount of legal U.S. citizens without a government-issued ID is approximately 11 percent, or 20 million people. Meaning, roughly 20 million U.S. citizens are being robbed of their fundamental rights as Americans to best be heard. The Tea Party members claim voter ID laws are put in place to prevent manipulation of the system when it is clear that the majority of those manipulating the system are those already a part of it.
The Tea Party’s lust for low taxes, constant strides towards ridding the country of any sort of government-aided programs, particularly the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) currently in place, their belief in minimal (if any) welfare grants, because every person living in poverty is there by choice, whether they are too lazy or stupid to make it out like others in the nation. The Tea Party believes that a low minimum wage creates jobs. Maybe so, but do not hesitate in the belief that minimum wage as a whole would cease to exist if most Tea Party members had their way. Then, there is their love for free-market capitalism, or the Invisible Hand, as The Wealth of Nations author Adam Smith called it. Their xenophobia and persistent hatred of the U.S. government is undeniable. Add all those factors up and what does it equal? Look for the pattern mentioned earlier.
Well, providing health care for all is, in their minds, pure socialism. Here is what is said on the Tea Party webpage about Obamacare: “The hideous abomination from hell must be eradicated. We the People must send a clear message to all future generations that we shall not stand for socialism of any kind. Obama Socialism is a political cancer which is terminal to our beloved nation.”
The percentage of minorities on welfare is 62.2 percent. This is where the Tea Party’s xenophobia stems from. Minorities are lazy, therefore, why should U.S. worker’s hard-earned dollars pay them to lay around. Get up and get a job is the Tea Party mindset. If they did it, why would it be difficult for others?
What the American Taliban disregards is that an American born into a life of poverty, left no inheritance, or was not raised by a family among the wealthiest 10 percent (annual salary of $78,000) has a 1 in 3.5 million chance of ever making it to the wealthiest 10 percent. In other words, those born into poverty, left no inheritance, and/or raised by a family that did not make it into the country’s wealthiest 10 percent, has a 0.0000002 percent chance of ever making a yearly salary of $78,000 or above in their lifetime. Statistically speaking, that means they are more likely to get hit by lightning, with lightning strike odds with Americans sitting at 1 in 3.1 million.
The Tea Party hates the idea of a minimum wage spike because of inflation, and more importantly, it is money coming out of the pockets of the people who fund their campaigns, thanks to Citizens United. They say that it hurts small businesses and job creation, but what it really does is help bridge the already widening gap between the wealthy and poor. In the dream scenario for the Tea Party, they would be able to provide all the jobs that they promise by repealing the 14th Amendment.
As President Obama said, Flint may have been extreme, but it was not unique. Unfortunately, with less government, there is bound to be more Flint-tales. What is truly scary is that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to educate most Americans on the matter. The residents of Flint may have had it the worst with lead and other water contamination issues, but they were not the first, and they are far from alone in this fight for basic human rights, including their crucial need to have access to clean water.
Opinion by T. Aaron DeGeorge
Edited by Leigh Haugh
Vox: The risk of lead poisoning isn’t just in Flint
American Taliban by Markos Moulitsas
MLive: Newspaper Archives
The Flint Journal: Disapproval, Residents asked to flush water, will be reimbursed, Flint Water Crisis, Snyder: City water tastes fine, Senate backs energy bill with no money for Flint, Flint Researcher: Lead levels better but still too high
Flint City Ordinance: Ordinance NO. 16-03
MSNBC: Breaking News: Flint Water Crisis
Interviewees: Mike Bryson, via telephone
Multiple Anonymous Flint Residents via Face-to-Face Interviews
All Article Images Courtesy of Author – T. Aaron DeGeorge