The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Flint, Mich., is one that Americans have become accustomed to witnessing in developing countries but not on U.S. soil. The elements of the tragedy are depressingly familiar: celebrities traveling to the area to draw attention to the crisis; companies and wealthy individuals making donations to those without clean water; and advocacy groups rallying to hold officials accountable. And yet, little has been done to actually help residents of Flint recover and thrive.
Amidst governmental finger-pointing and halfhearted attempts at making things right, Flint’s families remain trapped, unable to leave or return to the way things were. They lack the financial resources to move, but after paying out of pocket for unusable city water, bottled water, restoration of damaged property, and other crisis-related expenses, many can no longer afford to stay where they are, either.
Officials shouldn’t bother with empty apologies or promises to drink Flint’s water in “solidarity.” Instead, as the Experts of Color Network, of which I’m a member, wrote in a recent letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, they should develop a policy response that residents actually need: a 9/11-style fund that provides resources, in the form of direct compensation and subsidized lifetime healthcare, for affected households. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was created by an act of Congress and has distributed billions of tax-free dollars to first responders, family members of victims, and people who experienced health problems as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, helping them pay medical bills and return to their lives as best they can. The government has yet to act to offer the victims in Flint this crucial support.
The recent indictments of officials in Snyder’s administration and the seriousness of their offenses show that compensation is more than warranted. These people made the decision to switch water sources for the ostensible purpose of saving the state money, but what followed became a tragedy of epic proportions. The health of children and adults was compromised by lead poisoning; homes and buildings were damaged by contaminated water that corroded pipes; and property values, which were already depressed, plummeted even further with few prospects for resale given lenders’ refusal to underwrite mortgages in the city.
President Barack Obama’s visit Wednesday will only make it more obvious that what’s standing in the way of a solution to the Flint water crisis is the absence of leadership from the elected and appointed officials responsible for ensuring the well-being of the citizenry they are supposed to serve.
Unfortunately, this absence of leadership isn’t limited to state government alone. Leaders in Washington share the blame for allowing political gridlock to stand in the way of making the critical infrastructure investments necessary to ensure the health and safety of the American public.
None of the policy measures announced thus far offers economic mobility to affected households. Charitable funds, for example, cannot by law directly compensate the residents of Flint who have been harmed. Instead, the proposed funds will support nonprofit organizations that provide services for residents. Similarly, the federal government’s offer to bolster Medicaid services for low-income residents is welcome, but it doesn’t directly help economically struggling households who fall above the eligibility limits and for whom the harm endured is likely to last a lifetime.
The time has come for state and federal policymakers to fix what they broke by offering Flint residents an economic lifeline that can mitigate the harm incurred and help them move forward.
Those who say the U.S. or the state of Michigan can’t afford to do right by Americans the government has harmed should take a look at how we managed to find the resources to establish the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. There is no reason we should treat the residents of Flint — a disproportionately black, brown and low-income town — any differently than we treated the wealthier and whiter victims in New York City. Flint is not a developing country, and its residents are not strangers. Policymakers tasked with ending this nightmare should keep that in mind.