First Flint’s auto manufacturing benefactor began cutting jobs. Then white flight pulled people into the suburbs. Residents of Michigan began agitating over taxes and ushered in laws that kneecapped the city’s finances. All of it set the stage for a massive public health disaster that has touched nearly everyone in the city.
Flint’s current water crisis dates back to the spring of 2014, when officials and the state emergency manager for the city switched its water source to the Flint River, a more corrosive source, without corrosion control chemicals added in. The move was supposedly made to save money while the city waited for a pipeline to be built at a time when it was already grappling with large budget deficits that triggered the emergency receivership in the first place. Now it’s clear that the decision has led to widespread lead contamination, as well as other potentially harmful impacts on health.
But the roots of the current crisis go back more than a century, when a variety of forces — from deindustrialization to anti-tax zealotry to racism — combined to hollow out the city’s tax base and starve it of the resources that would allow it to deliver adequate infrastructure and services to its residents.
“There’s a long and complex history here that produced the conditions that allowed for this crisis,” explained historian and Flint resident Pamela Butler. “It’s not limited to the last four years of emergency management, it’s not limited to any one mayoral administration or leader. It’s a decades-long process of racialized disinvestment that has made this crisis possible.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the city’s prospects were rosy. Flint was founded as the “quintessential company town,” according to Andrew Highsmith, assistant professor of history at UC Irvine and author of Demolition Means Progress, when General Motors incorporated and picked it as its headquarters in 1908. The city prospered throughout the middle of the 20th century. At its peak, the company employed 77,000 Flint residents in 1978. The city’s overall population reached a peak of nearly 200,000 people in 1960.
That meant that the city’s infrastructure was built with expectations that its population would at least hold at that level, if not grow, as GM continued to support manufacturing jobs. But that’s not what happened. Instead, people began leaving the city in droves. Today, it has just 99,000 residents.
Jobs — And White People — Leave Town
Highsmith points to two migrations, both rooted in government policies. The first was caused by deindustrialization. In Flint, troubles began when GM built eight new industrial complexes in the suburbs surrounding the city between 1940 and 1960. While at first the plan was to annex them back to the city or set up regional governments that would share the benefits of the plants with the entire metro area, suburban residents balked and incorporated separate municipalities. “The city was no longer able to tax those plants,” Highsmith noted. “It was a massive hit to the local base.”
It was an omen of what was to come, the crest of a wave of deindustrialization that would hit the Rust Belt as manufacturers moved their production. “There was a shift of industrial production from the city of Flint first to the suburbs around it and later to the Sunbelt and overseas,” Highsmith explained. GM announced a huge wave of plant closings in 1986, two of them in Flint, and the last operating assembly plant in the city was shuttered in 1999. That eroded the city’s tax base even as it had to maintain an infrastructure built for a much larger population.
The economic migration went hand in hand with a simultaneous outflow of white people helped along by racist federal housing policies. “The second shift, which happened roughly at the same time, was the shift of taxpayers — homeowners — from the city to the suburbs,” he said. “That migration was enabled by federal housing programs.”
These segregated communities were created by very explicit government action.
Not everyone got to move out. The Federal Housing Administration and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, New Deal programs meant to help Americans afford homes, incorporated racial redlining into their lending practices all across the country. Flint was also victim to these practices: maps from that era show heavily African-American neighborhoods shaded in red, which made them far less likely to attract loans. The result was both an ease of entry for whites who wanted to move to the suburbs, plus subsidies for their home purchases from the federal government, and the concentration of black people stuck inside the city limits. “Whites were able to leave because the federal government financed the suburbs,” explained Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. “African-Americans couldn’t leave because they were prohibited by federal policy from moving out of the city.”
While there were also local covenants in many areas that set up racial barriers — Flint didn’t agree to a fair housing law until 1968 — Rothstein argues the most damage was done by these federal policies. “In the North, government built explicitly segregated public housing projects for African-Americans, and it created white suburbs surrounding large metropolitan areas that were explicitly prohibited for African-Americans,” he noted. “These segregated communities were created by very explicit government action.” By the mid-1960s, Flint was 94 percent segregated.
These actions both sucked even more tax revenue out of the city while concentrating poverty within its boundaries. Today, Flint is nearly 57 percent black, compared to a surrounding state that is 14 percent, and 41.5 percent of people live below the poverty line, versus less than 17 percent in the state as a whole. “If African-Americans had been permitted to move throughout the metropolitan area as whites were, you would not have low-income, segregated communities that can’t afford to provide services like Flint,” he said.
Then cities like Flint, which watched their tax bases dry up at the same time that they became more and more black, were blamed for their own struggles. Since the late 1970s, “Cities like Flint have been seen as disorderly, irresponsible, failed,” said said Stephen Wisniewski, a historian and Flint resident (and Butler’s partner). It’s a view that was particularly prevalent in places that had become increasingly black. “We’re basically the municipal equivalent of the Reagan boogieman of the welfare queen,” he said. “We are a city that can’t manage itself.”
Cities like Flint have been seen as disorderly, irresponsible, failed.
At the same time, anti-tax sentiment led to the passage of laws that further hampered the financial prospects of Michigan’s cities. It began in the 70s, “the tax revolt years,” as Michigan State Rep. Jim Townsend calls them. State voters approved the Headlee amendment in 1978 and Proposal A in 1994, both of which combined to limit cities’ property tax revenue growth and allow the state to distribute less tax revenue that it had been required to dole out. Between 1998 and 2012, statutory revenue sharing from the state to cities dropped from $900 million to $215 million.
“Ever since the late ’70s, the state government has been restricting how much local governments can collect in revenue,” Townsend said. At the same time, “state government has been able to basically offload some of its financial responsibilities onto local governments in the form of cutting state aid.”
“The Flint crisis [is] really an outcome of that policy,” he added.
The Cool Factor
Instead of increasing resources for cities like Flint, the solution paired with less tax revenue was spending cuts. “Neoliberalism has permeated both sides,” Wisniewski. “No matter what, austerity is seen as a good idea.”
Austerity hasn’t just deprived Flint of the cash needed to maintain or replace its water infrastructure. In fact, the current water crisis is in many ways just the latest in a string of systemic disasters created by lawmakers’ cost-cutting fixation. Rounds of cuts have lead to scores of firefighters and police officers getting laid off in recent years. Yet the city has so many fires it was the “arson capital” of the country in 2011, and it had the highest murder rate of any city in 2012.
Wisniewski and Butler have experienced all of this firsthand. At one point, their house was robbed twice in the span of six months, yet an officer only came out for one of the incidents and even then took 11 hours to arrive. At another time, a vacant building next to their house caught fire and they worried that the city would simply decide to let it burn instead of trying to save the structures around it.
The austerity measures that have been put into place have been life threatening for a long time.
“The austerity measures that have been put into place have been life threatening for a long time,” Butler said.
The solutions that are often proposed to revitalize cities like Flint focus almost entirely on attracting private business investment, rather than infusing them with resources. One example was former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool Cities” initiative in 2003, which picked a number of cities (Flint didn’t make the list) that it designated as having the potential to be hip enough to attract businesses and workers. Wisniewski argues that doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. “It’s not addressing the 40- and 50-year-old problems,” he said. “It’s not how we’re seen, it’s not thinking positive thoughts. It’s jobs, it’s water lines.”
The old problems aren’t limited to Flint, but are also cropping up among a number of other Rust Belt cities that went through the same process of deindustrialization and economic collapse. Residents of Detroit have been fighting for affordable access to water. Children in six other Michigan cities have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Sebring, Ohio is dealing with its own lead contamination issue in its public water.
“As long as the approaches to impoverished cities and populations continue to be cost cutting austerity, we can’t possibly make those cities livable and safe again,” Wisniewski added.
The economic picture is also unlikely to improve. Flint’s unemployment rate has frequently spiked into double digits over the last decade. One perverse outcome of the current water crisis could be widespread job creation from the work required to rip out and replace the city’s water lines as well as to deliver the medical care that residents will need for years to come.
But that will require government investment in the city. “You can’t cut your way out of the crisis, you can’t manage your way out of the crisis,” Highsmith said. “The city needs jobs and resources and investment, and it has received very little of that in recent years.”
“Flint’s people were suffering from these sorts of inequities even before the water crisis hit,” he added. “Until new investment comes to the city, until the city’s broader economic crisis can be addressed, these kinds of problems are likely to continue.”