Failure in Flint: Poverty, Austerity, and the Failure of Corporate Government

Flint, MI (TFC) – By now, most are aware of the water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan. As it currently stands, the levels of lead contaminants in Flint tap water number some 27 parts per billion – over twice the level deemed acceptable by the EPA – and around 27,000 children, who are unique risk for lead poisoning, have been exposed. Recently, we have seen that many households may have been exposed to far higher levels of lead, as well as bacterial contaminants. The question must be asked; how did things in Flint get so bad?

The History and Collapse of Flint

Flint was once a prosperous city. After the Second World War, Flint became a major center of automobile production, and was the site of major factories for General Motors, including the main plants in the Buick and Chevrolet divisions. However, beginning in the 1980’s and accelerating into the 1990’s, the manufacturing sector of Flint dropped dramatically. As globalization began to take hold in the US economy, GM closed many factories, moving some production to non-union facilities and some overseas. Flint moved from some 80,000 workers employed in manufacturing to an estimated 8,000 today, and these often in positions that do not offer the same pay and benefits scale that had been seen previously. As the local economy steadily collapsed, the city faced urban decay, depopulation, and soaring rates of crime. Currently, the unemployment rate in Flint is estimated at almost 14% with a median household income of $26,339 in a community of just over 100,000 people as of the 2010 census.

This poverty can be directly linked to the cost saving decision by the automotive industry to pull out of Flint – but it wouldn’t be the last cost saving measure to damage the area.

The Causes of the Water Crisis

In 2014, Flint was suffering an economic crisis, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed a series of state managers to handle the economic situation. A main reform was to be shifting the Flint water system away from it’s then source, Detroit. The initial plan was to either stay with the Detroit water system or switch to the Karengnondi Water Authority, which draws water from Lake Huron; however, as this project would take several years, the decision was made by the state officials (with the tacit approval of the Flint City Council) to transfer immediately to drawing water from the Flint River, a decision that took effect 25 April 2014.

Image Source: abarndweller, Wikimedia, Creative Commons AC Spark Plug, Flint MI
Image Source: abarndweller, Wikimedia, Creative Commons AC Spark Plug, Flint MI

Soon after, residents reported that their tap water had become discolored and had a foul odor, and some reported rashes and skin issues. The city issued boil advisories, but did not take many further steps. At this point, anaylists from Virginia Tech believe that the water quality could have been corrected for roughly $100 a day and the corrosion problem could have been avoided, but at this point in time, state and city officials did not conduct any widespread analysis.

The lead problem is caused by the corrosion of outdated lead pipes, which were never replaced. The leading theory currently is that the water in the Flint River is contaminated by an excess of chloride, most likely the result of runoff from road salt used to clear ice. 

Concentrations of chloride bring up the corrosive level of water, which damages lead pipes and causes them to leech into the water running through them. Although the US EPA does not monitor concentrations of chloride in water, other countries seem to be actively concerned about this danger. From an article in The Guardian:

…the EPA only monitors the ambient or aesthetic quality of chloride, because it is not considered dangerous to human health.

Canada, on the other hand, lists road salts on the second Priority Substances List , Canada’s 1999 Environmental Protection Act deems road salts “toxic” based on available data: “ may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity or that constitute or may constitute a danger to the environment on which life depends.

This would seem to call into question the effectiveness of the US Environmental Protection Agency in conducting tests for public safety, especially as an EPA administrator told the mayor of Flint that it would be premature to draw any conclusions” in regards to the lead content on 2 July 2015, well after it was demonstrated that the levels were far above safe standards.  As it stands, the decision to move to another water system has directly harmed the people of Flint, Michigan. That this was a blatant cost-saving measure cannot be disputed, as Detroit offered multiple times to continue service, even offering to waive a $4 million re-connection fee after the lead situation came to light, as can be seen in this (very helpful) timeline. To find out why the state government so desperately wanted to save money, one must briefly turn their attention to the government and ideology of Governor Rick Snyder.

The Snyder Doctrine

Rick Snyder took office 1 January 2011 as Republican Governor of the State of Michigan. Running on a deficit cutting platform, Snyder did indeed lower the budget of the state. However, he also cut corporate taxes by some $1.7 billion. He paid for these cuts by raising taxes on low income families and cutting many public services. Though ostensibly done to spur on job creation, economic evidence that corporate tax cuts lead to an expansion of the workforce are slim and Snyder himself said that he “can’t guarantee the results.” Snyder, however, has taken a great deal of campaign money from business interests and super-pacs, which may explain why tax cuts were provided explicitly for his state’s business community. The Snyder Doctrine – one of austerity for the poor and tax cuts for the wealthy – must be viewed within the larger context of money in politics. This is the ideology that led to the poisoning of the people and children of Flint.


The people of Flint seem to have been failed; first by the corporate capitalist system, and finally by the government which serves that system. As seen by the refusal of the EPA to become involved, or to acknowledge the original danger of chloride runoff, it was not just local or state officials that where the cause of the problem, but the federal government as well. The failure in Flint is indeed a failure of all those in positions of power, whether public or private, and it is not limited to Flint. Rather, Flint is the latest warning sign in a narrative of corruption that pervades the United States.
Flint could happen anywhere – and it does.