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“What Candidates See As Our Infrastructure Priorities”: Time To Press The Presidential Candidates On Flint’s Water Crisis

In every presidential campaign, there are issues everyone knows beforehand will be discussed — what should we do about immigration, how can we improve the economy, where should we go on health care — and events that become campaign issues when they burst into the news. So it is with the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a public health catastrophe has played out over the last two years, and more and more politicians are being asked to comment on it.

To get you up to speed, in 2014, in an effort to save money, the city stopped getting its water from Detroit and began getting it from the contaminated Flint River. It turned out that all manner of nasty chemicals were contained in the water, most alarmingly, lead. It’s important to understand that at the time, Flint’s own elected officials were all but powerless, because the city was being run by a “emergency manager” appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder; it was the emergency manager who made the final call to switch their water supply (you can read more about that here). Emails released yesterday by Snyder’s administration show that as Flint residents were complaining about the water’s color and taste, and reporting ill health effects, state officials were not particularly eager to do anything about it. Snyder’s chief of staff wrote in one email that other state officials felt that “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football.”

Well it’s a political football now — as well it should be. I’ve long been an advocate of “politicizing” just about everything (see here or here), not because candidates should take any excuse to blame each other for anything going wrong anywhere in the country, but because elected officials need to make choices, and campaigns provide an opportunity to get them on record saying how they’d address critical issues. Right after a hurricane is the best time to talk about what government should do to prepare for disasters, just as the aftermath of a high-profile police shooting is the best time to talk about police practices. It’s when our attention gets focused on a problem and there’s a real opportunity to make progress.

So what we’re seeing now is that Democrats, particularly President Obama and those running for his party’s presidential nomination, are eager to talk about Flint. Obama met with Flint’s mayor, declared a state of emergency that will allow federal funds to flow there, and called the crisis “inexplicable and inexcusable.” Hillary Clinton raised it in Sunday’s debate when asked what issue she wish had been brought up but hadn’t, saying, “We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.” For his part, Bernie Sanders called for Snyder to resign.

And the Republicans? It won’t be surprising if they aren’t interested in discussing the race and class issues the crisis raises, and thus far, they don’t seem to want to talk seriously about it at all. Ben Carson was the first to give any substantive comment, placing the blame on Flint’s elected officials and the federal government, neatly excusing Governor Snyder’s administration of any involvement. Marco Rubio was asked about it on Monday and said he couldn’t say much, since “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on”; from what I can tell he hasn’t said anything about it since. Donald Trump was also reluctant to discuss it, responding to a reporter’s question on Tuesday by saying, “A thing like that shouldn’t happen, but, again, I don’t want to comment on that.” John Kasich said, “I think the governor has moved the National Guard in and, you know, I’m sure he will manage this appropriately.” I haven’t been able to find any comments from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, or Rick Santorum.

But there is one Republican candidate who made detailed remarks about the issue: Ted Cruz. “It is a failure at every level of government, a failure of the city officials, a failure of the county officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed,” Cruz said. “Every American is entitled to have access to clean water. And to all the children who have been poisoned by government officials, by their negligence, by their ineptitude, it’s heart-breaking.” In addition, Cruz’s Michigan state director wrote on her Facebook page that the campaign was bringing bottled water to “crisis pregnancy centers” in the city, which try to convince women not to have abortions.

Cruz did his best to fit the issue in with his broader critique of government, but it isn’t surprising that the rest of his Republican colleagues didn’t really want to talk about it. If Snyder were a Democrat, you can be sure they’d be blaming him, but he isn’t. They aren’t going to say that this disaster demonstrates that the problems that affect poor and black people are given less attention by government at all levels than the problems that affect rich and white people, because most of them don’t think that’s actually true. They aren’t going to say that this shows that we need a major investment in infrastructure spending in America, because they don’t really believe that, either.

But those are the broader issues that the catastrophe in Flint raises, and that’s what the candidates ought to be pressed on. They don’t even have to agree on who bears the lion’s share of the blame to agree that we have a national problem that requires attention. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s drinking water system a grade of “D” and says that in the next couple of decades we will need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps even into the trillions, in order to bring the system up to where it should be.

So now that we’re focusing on the question of drinking water, the candidates should say what they see as our infrastructure priorities, how we should address them, how much we ought to spend, and how that fits in with the other things they’d like to spend money on.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, January 21, 2016

January 24, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Flint Michigan, Hillary Clinton, Presidential Candidates, Rick Snyder | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Poisoning Of Flint”: A Nightmarish Example Of How Misguided Austerity Policies Can Literally Poison The Public

In early 2015, shortly after his victory in a heated reelection contest, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) began exploring a run for president. With his business experience and electoral success in a blue state, Snyder was considered a viable potential candidate, so he embarked on a national speaking tour and set up a fundraising organization. Its name: “Making Government Accountable.”

As Snyder was testing the presidential waters, however, his government was being shamefully unaccountable to constituents who were concerned about their water supply. The city of Flint switched its primary water source from Lake Huron, through Detroit’s system, to the Flint River in April 2014. Approved by an emergency manager appointed by the governor, the move was supposed to save the beleaguered city millions of dollars. But residents soon began reporting tap water that appeared discolored, smelled rotten and caused kids to break out in rashes. Today, Flint has become a nightmarish example of how misguided austerity policies can literally poison the public.

We now know that Flint’s water supply was contaminated by lead that it collected from deteriorating pipes. In recent weeks, Snyder has issued a public apology to the city, declared a state of emergency, activated the National Guard and requested assistance from President Obama, who declared the situation a federal emergency on Saturday. The state health department is also looking into whether an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that has killed 10 people in the area is connected to the water crisis. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is investigating the state and local government’s actions, while it could cost up to $1.5 billion to fix the city’s water distribution system.

All of this is the result of the Snyder administration’s stunning lack of accountability, beginning with the fateful decision to put Flint under the control of a political appointee who was unelected and unaccountable to the public. When the city’s residents initially reported their concerns in 2014, officials responded by pumping hazardous levels of chlorine into the water. When complaints persisted, officials assured citizens that the water was safe to drink, repeatedly disregarding clear evidence that it wasn’t. But when elevated levels of lead showed up in children’s blood this past fall, the government was forced to admit there was a problem. Snyder appointed a task force to investigate the crisis, which found, among other things, that legitimate fears were met with “aggressive dismissal, belittlement, and attempts to discredit” the individuals speaking out.

“They cut every corner,” said Flint resident Melissa Mays. “They did more to cover up than actually fix it. That’s criminal.” Snyder’s then chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, acknowledged the administration’s deplorable response in a July 2015 email, writing: “These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

But the water crisis in Flint represents more than a catastrophic political failure. It is also a direct consequence of decades of policies based on the premise that government spending is always a problem and never a solution. Long before Flint tried to reduce spending by moving to a cheaper water source, the pipes that ultimately poisoned the water were neglected. Across the country, crumbling infrastructure is a pervasive threat that is creating serious issues in other cities and could produce similar crises . As Michigan State University economist Eric Scorsone explained , “Flint is an extreme case, but nationally, there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure. This is a common problem nationally — infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.”

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacles to desperately needed public investments are politicians like Snyder who conflate “accountability” with austerity. For Republican technocrats in particular, more accountability almost always means less spending on government programs that help ensure the public good.

With less than a month until the Iowa caucus, the conventional wisdom is that voters are fed up and that their anger is reflected in the polls. That frustration and distrust of government is understandable when politicians like Snyder and their cronies are so blatantly unaccountable to the public. Indeed, when government is polluted by officials who put corporate interests above their constituents and cost-cutting above the common good, it too often fails to fulfill even its most basic functions, such as protecting access to safe drinking water. But instead of giving in to anger and austerity, in this election, we should be having a vigorous debate about how government can be truly accountable to the people it serves.

 

By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 18, 2016

January 20, 2016 Posted by | Austerity, Flint Michigan, Rick Snyder | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Legacy We Could Create For Freddie Gray”: Ensuring A Good Start For The Very Young, A Priority As High As Jobs And Education

A determined young woman is graduating this month from Howard University with dreams of attending law school. Her LinkedIn page attests to a life of both making and seizing opportunities, from serving as a House of Representatives page while in high school, to working at a fashion firm, a law office and the White House.

All of this would have seemed farfetched 10 years ago when 12-year-old Talitha Halley of New Orleans saw Hurricane Katrina wipe out her home and community, spent an awful week in the Superdome, and ended up on a bus to Houston with her mother and older sister.

The high school in their new Houston neighborhood, Sharpstown, was 96 percent minority. More than 8 in 10 students were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. It had a gang problem and a dropout problem. Only about a third of freshmen were making it to their senior years — putting Sharpstown in the top ranks of 1,700 “dropout factories” that Johns Hopkins researchers identified in 2007 for a national Associated Press study. Sharpstown went on to star in the 2012 film Dropout Nation on PBS’ Frontline.

But Halley had a loving, encouraging mother and Sharpstown had Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention group that puts people inside schools to link students with whatever they need — “whether it’s food, school supplies, health care, counseling, academic assistance, or a positive role model.” Halley joined a support group it sponsored for teenage Katrina refugees, applied to be a House page, visited Howard and vowed to go there, and inspired many friends and mentors and to help her achieve her dreams. As the first in her family to earn a college degree, The Washington Post reported that she is graduating with only $15,000 in debt on a $200,000 education.

Freddie Gray lived in a Baltimore neighborhood plagued by similar problems, but his trajectory was very different. He fell four grades behind in reading. He dropped out of high school. He was arrested many times, mostly on drug-related charges. And then he died after sustaining a fatal injury while in police custody.

Why wasn’t Gray more like Halley? It’s a haunting question. The easy answer is just that he wasn’t motivated enough, just didn’t try hard enough. Look further, though, and Gray was up against a deck so stacked that it likely would have crushed anyone, even Halley. His mother was an illiterate heroin addict, and he spent his early childhood in houses with peeling lead paint. His lead levels were so alarming as an infant and toddler that his family sued one of its landlords. He and his two sisters began getting monthly “lead checks” as part of a settlement in 2010.

The National Institutes of Health lists a devastating array of symptoms and long-term complications from lead poisoning. They include aggressive behavior, irritability, low appetite and energy, behavior or attention problems, failure at school, reduced IQ and — in young children — loss of previous developmental skills. “The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be,” NIH warns.

Did Gray’s lead settlement make him dependent and rob him of his will to get ahead? Or was he permanently damaged long before that in ways that make it very difficult to succeed? Where was the government when the Gray family’s landlords were letting paint poison their tenants? Where were the home visits that might have picked up on the situation, the services that might have prevented such costly harm to children and to society?

There are many people talking these days about fixing poverty, income inequality, mass incarceration, unjust sentencing, and police practices that lead to tragedy. President Obama said recently that his mission in office and “for the rest of my life” will be to make sure minority youths have the chance to achieve their dreams. Republican presidential candidates are also in the mix; almost all hewing to the line that government “help” hurts the poor.

The GOP argument ignores history. Government policies, from slavery to Jim Crow, from poll taxes to the mortgage redlining, that kept black people out of good neighborhoods with good schools pretty much put us where we are today. It’s appropriate that the government do all it can to make things right, for as long as it takes.

Furthermore, and this goes for politicians across the board, it’s fine and necessary to help teenagers, prisoners, preschoolers, the working poor, anyone who needs it — but our energy and resources really ought to be concentrated far more than they are on poor children from birth to age 3. They are at increased risk of irreparable damage to their brains, bodies, mental health, and overall potential. Ensuring a good start for the very young should be a priority as high as jobs and education for both parties. As Abigail Adams would say, remember the babies. And remember Freddie Gray.

 

By: Jill Lawrence, The National Memo, May 8, 2015

May 10, 2015 Posted by | Freddie Gray, Poverty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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