Column: The intersection of poverty, race and poison in Flint, MI

Registered Nurse Brian Jones draws a blood sample from Grayling Stefek, 5, at the Eisenhower Elementary School, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 in Flint, Mich. The students were being tested for lead after the metal was found in the city's drinking water. (AP)

As if out of a horror movie, recent news has unfolded the stories of Flint, Michigan residents, whose state government officials have exposed the city to hazardous levels of toxic lead. What’s worse, it appears that the only thing that could have saved the 65 percent minority and 41.5 percent below poverty-level residents was more tax dollars.

In a series of unfortunate events over the past several years, Flint leadership took action to save money on the water it sourced from Detroit by switching to a new system sourced from Lake Huron. Because the water system sourced from Lake Huron wasn’t expected to be built and finished until a few years later, an interim decision to source water from the heavily polluted Flint River, and transparency over the water’s safety, became a game of government officials lying and hiding the effects of the increasingly dangerous water.

Focused simply on balancing their budget and avoiding further deficit issues, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the appointed, non-elected Flint and Michigan government officials overseeing the water’s safety played their poker faces as residents – living at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale – paid the real price.

The water from the Flint River, as pointed out in documentary-maker and journalist Michael Moore’s open letter calling for the governor’s arrest, is filled with toxins dumped by several General Motors and DuPont factories for over a century. Knowing this, Snyder’s administration tried to clean the water with large amounts of chlorine, which stripped large amounts of lead off Flint’s water pipes and delivered it through sinks, showers, public schools and cafeterias. GM workers in the area won’t even use the water on their auto parts because of its corrosive effects, yet Governor Snyder and Flint officials on both sides of the political aisle denied continuously that the water could have any negative effects until the release of a leaked report on the water’s toxicity.

Gov. Rick Snyder speaks about the Flint water crisis during a press conference at City Hall in downtown, Flint, Mich. Environmental and civil rights groups want a federal judge to order the prompt replacement of all lead pipes in Flint's water system to ensure that residents have a safe drinking supply, a demand that Snyder said might be a long-term option but not an immediate one. (The FlintJournal-MLive.com via AP) 

While activists like Moore are right to hold Governor Snyder accountable for the irreversible poisoning of Michigan’s children under his leadership, the deterioration in the quality of life and public resources for Flint residents is a negative testament to our nation’s larger attitude towards the poor. 

Similar to Hurricane Katrina or the 2008 financial crisis, whether economic or naturally occurring, it always seems to be the poor and most vulnerable who are the subjects of extreme suffering in American society. This is not by coincidence. Indeed, the people of Flint were the driving force behind a powerful automobile industry until GM decided it simply wanted to lower its bottom line and take a stand against unions it considered poisonous for corporate profits. And now, without any large, hyper-capitalist, corporate entities willing to invest jobs in the violent, poor, crime-ridden environment their counterparts created, Flint residents live with barely any positive freedoms or economic resources.

it always seems to be the poor and most vulnerable who are the subjects of extreme suffering in American society.

Imagine trying to find a stable job and feed yourself and your family when you can’t even be sure your public water system isn’t going to kill you or your family. How does this happen in one of the wealthiest countries of the modern world? Why do we consistently allow the destruction of low-income communities, especially those with a majority being people of color, only to step in for damage control once a national news story breaks?

As Beulah Walker, chief coordinator of the nonprofit Detroit Water Brigade, said in an article by the Detroit News, “All eyes are on Detroit and Flint now: We live in a developed country, developed cities, but we’re living in Third World conditions.” 

When the people of Flint, those near the very bottom of America’s increasingly skewed distribution of wealth, are left to answer for a lack of property tax revenue, or the corporate extortion of lower wage and nonunionized labor in other countries and even states, it becomes increasingly clear that our system is broken.

Clusters of poverty in areas like Flint are easier to see once the entire country has heard about a water supply poisoned for the sake of a balanced budget. However, the suffering of those in poverty is often more hidden on an individual level – unaffordable childcare, healthcare, or nutritious food due to scarce, low paying jobs is rarely a breaking news story. However, when some 47 million Americans – about 1 in 6 - are living in poverty today, it should be.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.