You may have heard that the tap water in Flint, Michigan, has been poisoning its residents and particularly its children. What you may not have heard was that this was caused by the austerity agenda of the Michigan Governor and legislature (the same ones that pushed Detroit into bankruptcy). Moreover, as with Detroit, the residents of this depressed city are very poor and largely minorities (56% black).

Based on municipal budget issues, Flint was forced into receivership, control was stripped from local elected officials, and an emergency manager appointed by the Governor. In April 2014, the austerity plan called for a switch to cheaper Flint River water for residential tap water rather than that of the Detroit water system. Residents immediately complained about the color, odor, and taste of the water, as well as the appearance of rashes after using it for bathing. Residents’ concerns were ignored despite the history of contamination of the river from manufacturing plants’ wastes. And the switch was defended as a necessary business decision to address the budget issues.

Within 4 months, the water had tested positive for E-coli bacteria and residents were told to boil it before drinking it. Within 7 months, children’s blood tests began showing elevated levels of lead. By early 2015, after residents had suffered with this water for a year, state and federal officials began acknowledging privately that there were serious issues with the water, including data indicating high levels of lead in the water. [1] However, it wasn’t until October, 2015, that the source of water was shifted back to the Detroit water system after 18 months of contaminated water. And it wasn’t until January, 2016, that a state of emergency was declared. [2]

The harm to Flint residents will be long lasting. Chemicals in the Flint River water corroded water pipes and leached lead out of the pipes and into the water. The result is widespread lead poisoning whose effects cannot be undone. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead, which is a neurotoxin that harms their developing brains and nervous systems. [3] Effects can include mental retardation, as well as stunted growth, hearing loss, and cognitive dysfunction. Over 1,700 cases of children with elevated blood lead levels have been found. In adults, high lead levels can cause miscarriages and increases in blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Some of Flint’s children and adults have undoubtedly suffered permanent harm from which they will never recover.

To add insult to injury, Flint’s emergency manager has been sending out shut off notices to residents who are behind in paying for their contaminated water. Over 1,800 such notices have been sent out and more are on their way. [4]

The potential for the problem of lead leaching into the drinking water was well known in advance. However, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not require Flint to treat the river water to prevent corrosion, belittled the public’s complaints, and did not conduct testing of the water. The agency’s director and other state officials resigned last month. [5] The federal Department of Justice has just announced that it is launching an investigation into the water crisis.

Despite the new water supply, damage to water pipes may mean the high lead levels will persist in tap water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s standard is that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe and it requires local water systems to take action if over 10% of samples at the tap contain lead. Unfortunately in Flint, almost a year went by before testing was done and another 6 months passed before action was taken.

This is an example (and there are numerous others at the state and federal levels) of what happens when austerity, budget and tax cutting, and shrinking of the public sector are the goals of elected officials – typically for ideological or political reasons – rather than the health and well-being of citizens.

[1]       Bryant, J., 1/15/16, “How much do we hate our children?” Common Dreams (

[2]       Gilmore, B., 1/13/16, “Flint’s water crisis flows from a much bigger problem,” Common Dreams (

[3]       Lazare, S. 1/7/16, “Calls for Michigan Gov. Snyder’s arrest as Flint poisoning scandal implicates top staffers,” Common Dreams (

[4]       Lazare, S., 1/15/16, “’Ludicrous’ as Flint tells residents: Pay for poisoned water or we’ll cut you off,” Common Dreams (

[5]       Schneider, R., & Eggert, D. 1/13/16, “Michigan National Guard, FEMA help Flint amid water crisis,” Associated Press (



  1. I love that MassBudget always begins every presentation reminding folks of what it is that government is and what it does for people. A lot of people think government is “some big blob out there” and don’t really know how it functions to improve our lives on a daily basis. Providing access to safe drinking water is but one example.

    1. Mary Ann, Good point! When government works, people tend to take it for granted and the media rarely notices. It’s only when something goes wrong that people and the media seem to notice. There’s a political faction that’s more than happy to trumpet (not pun intended) every government mistake or failure. However, there doesn’t seem to be anyone who trumpets governments’ successes!

  2. Thanks, John! It’s getting a lot of press attention now but not about the politics that led up to it or what will be done to help the affected kids, adults, and families. It is a travesty of the worst kind.

  3. Had to share this on Facebook. Excellent post. The Flint travesty makes my blood boil. Thank you for writing this.

    Now, back to the Democratic Debate….

    John Pappas Sent from my iPhone


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