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A Tragedy in the Making

The Flint lead crisis serves as a tragic reminder that people living in poverty remain the most vulnerable, disempowered, and unhealthy members of our society. It also reminds us that even temporary public policies that neglect to consider their health and safety can have profound and lifelong negative consequences.
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The Flint lead crisis has been called Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's Hurricane Katrina because of errors made by state and local officials under his watch in causing and managing this public health emergency. These mistakes include changing Flint's water supply from Detroit to the polluted Flint River without taking appropriate low-cost measures to prevent toxic metals from leaking into the water, and delaying help by ignoring or disputing outcries from local residents about the dangerous health conditions created by this policy. Because of these failed decisions, this public policy disaster will cost up to $1.5 billion to fix, burdening an already overwhelmed state economy. But, for the residents of Flint, this tragedy was years in the making.

Although directly caused by the flawed policies of 2014, research on other disadvantaged US communities facing public health crises suggest the roots of the current crisis lie in Flint's crushing economic decline that began in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s and 90s following the closure of its General Motors plants. Unemployment and poverty soared, creating numerous social problems including high crime and violence from which many residents who could afford to move fled while the less fortunate were forced to stay behind. This flight created a community of poor, mostly Black residents without the economic means or political power to improve their living conditions.

According to the World Health Organization, people living in poverty are at greater risk for poor health than their peers in large part because they live in resource-poor, often unsafe environments that make it difficult to make healthy choices. By 2010, 15% of Flint's population was unemployed, 42% lived in poverty, and the violent crime rate was 5 times greater than the national average. Like other disadvantaged US communities, Flint, even before being exposed to contaminated water, lacked many important basic resources needed for healthy living. Few grocery stores were available for Flint residents to buy healthy foods such as fresh produce, the housing system was broken with abandoned properties littering the landscape, and nearly 60% of city parks had been rated "poor" or "mediocre,"discouraging residents and their children from engaging in safe physical activity.

But the main reason these longstanding community problems existed--and continue to exist--in Flint is that people living in poverty are most often marginalized or completely excluded from public policy decision-making processes, leaving them with little power to challenge unhealthy policies. This was disturbingly illustrated in the current crisis, when Flint residents who complained about their toxic water found their cries repeatedly silenced by government officials for over a year, until outside researchers and dedicated medical professionals uncovered the truth and sparked national public outrage.

The Flint lead crisis serves as a tragic reminder that people living in poverty remain the most vulnerable, disempowered, and unhealthy members of our society. It also reminds us that even temporary public policies that neglect to consider their health and safety can have profound and lifelong negative consequences. Lessons learned from the Flint crisis will have a short shelf life if we choose to ignore the numerous problems that too many poor and disadvantaged communities in the country face or address them only when they play out on the national stage.