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The Flint Water Crisis is Also a Crisis of Democracy

February 5, 2016 | David Donnelly , President

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Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for his failure to address the crisis of safe, clean drinking water in Flint. Since the story burst onto the national scene in late December and early January, Americans have learned that Flint’s residents – including young children – had been drinking water with dangerously high lead counts due to the corrosion of old water pipes. The proximate cause was a switch from the Detroit water supply to the Flint River without adequate new filtering to protect the pipes from corrosion. A Governor-appointed emergency manager for Flint made that decision.

Concerns about the color, smell, and safety of Flint’s drinking water had been raised for more than a year. By the time high levels of lead were detected, between 6,000 and 12,000 children had been exposed to dangerous contaminants. Flint residents are demanding immediate action. In January, President Obama declared a federal emergency, freeing up resources to aid the city.

Hillary Clinton was the first presidential candidate to raise the issue of the crisis in Flint, Michigan. In last night’s MSNBC debate, noting she was traveling there this weekend, she said, “We need to be absolutely clear about everything that should be done from today to tomorrow, into the future to try to remedy the terrible burden that the people of Flint are barring.”

When she arrives there on Sunday, she’ll likely talk about the problems that led to this crisis and the slow response by Gov. Snyder’s administration—institutional racism, the shrinking of public resources, ideological rigidity about the role of government. But there’s another issue she should talk about too–the growing political inequality that also contributed to this disaster.

If a few super PAC donors lived in Flint, how long would a response have taken?

Gov. Snyder raised $19 million over his two successful runs for office in 2010 and 2014, and contributed an additional $5.9 million of his own money. Relying on data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the U.S. Census Bureau, Every Voice assembled a series of facts that paint a dramatic picture of why the reaction to such a disaster may have been so slow. As the saying goes, follow the money. We compared how much money was contributed from two municipalities – the, small wealthy northern Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills and the poorer, industrial city of Flint – to Snyder’s election campaigns.

  • Snyder took more money – $1.8 million – from Bloomfield Hills’ donors than any other municipality in Michigan. That amounts to nearly ten percent of all his campaign contributions. Flint comes in at 54th among all municipalities, with $77,538 in donations, or 0.4% of Snyder’s two cycle haul.
  • Bloomfield Hills is home to about 3,925 residents, which means its residents have given $453 per capita to Snyder. Flint is home to about 100,569 residents, who have given $0.77 per capita. Flint is the state’s seventh largest city. Bloomfield Hills is 173 in municipality population ranking.
  • Bloomfield Hills, despite being 26 times smaller than Flint, gave 23 times more money to Snyder. The average Bloomfield Hills resident gave 588 times the average Flint resident.
  • Bloomfield Hills is a north Detroit suburb with estimated median home values of $690,500 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median home value in Flint is $36,700. The median household income in Bloomfield Hills is $163,462 compared to the below poverty level median household income in Flint of $24,679.
  • Bloomfield Hills’ non-Hispanic white population is 85.5% and its African-American population is 1.4%. Flint’s non-Hispanic white population is 36.9% and its African-American population is 54.9%.

FLINT

Too many people ask about a smoking gun or a quid pro quo when they want evidence of money’s corrupting influence in politics. But look at the systemic ways in which some of our citizens, like those who live in Bloomfield Hills, receive first class education, the finest in health care, and the basics of safe healthy drinking water, and some don’t – like the people in Flint. The whole system is a smoking gun.

The whole system leads to poor people and people of color not receiving attention from our elected officials and not having their voices heard until their children are poisoned. And even then, we see the community is still struggling to get the issue resolved. We all know this would have never happened in Bloomfield Hills.

There are other important causes of this crisis – institutional racism, shrinking of the government services that would have caught it earlier, and many others. But what ought to also be indicted is a political system that works well for the wealthy and well-connected, and is not designed to instinctually protect and serve the majority of Americans in this country. Unfortunately, this system has resulted in the poisoning of both the children and families of Flint and our democracy.

David Donnelly

David Donnelly is the president of Every Voice and Every Voice Action.