To save money, the state of Michigan poisoned the children of Flint.
State officials thought so little of the impoverished city and its 100,000 residents, most of them poor and people of color, that they switched the water supply from the pure waters of Lake Huron to the brackish Flint River. Then they broke federal law by neglecting to treat the water with an anti-corrosion agent, which would have cost about $100 a day.
The water’s heavy iron content ate into the water lines, about half of which are made of lead. The water smelled and tasted foul, but state officials said everything was fine, even though a university research team said the lead content was dangerously high.
Finally a pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, compared the blood lead levels of toddlers she was seeing with records on hand from previous years. She saw lead levels had doubled or even tripled since the water line switch.
Lead poisoning is irreversible. To save a relatively small amount of money, the state may have doomed these children to lower IQ levels, behavioral problems, growth delays, hearing difficulties and a host of other physical and neurological ailments.
“There’s tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population,” Hanna-Attisha told CNN.
Michigan has committed a stunning act of governmental malpractice. When President Barack Obama travels to the state on Wednesday to applaud progress in Detroit and its auto industry, he should make a side trip to Flint. It would signal to a fearful community that the president of the United States cares about its plight.
The tainted water supply will cost the state and federal government for years. Flint’s families will need intensive services like nutritional programs and early childhood education to mitigate the damage.
But right now they need clean water. The state spent $10 million to hook the water back to its old source, but the corroded pipes are still leaching lead. The National Guard is going door to door, passing out bottles of water safe to drink.
The scandal ought to bring an end to the political career of Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who personally reacted far too slowly to the crisis while some of his top officials improperly downplayed the threats as well.
And it should act as a cautionary tale to other states that wrongly think it’s smart policy to starve state budgets to the point where essential services begin to break down.
Kansas, which allows more than 300,000 persons to avoid paying income taxes because of the way their businesses are structured, is at that point. Crises are mounting in the mental health system and the state is unable to properly patrol its highways, investigate crimes and staff its prisons.
Missouri, which has some of the most generous tax credit programs in the nation and also recently cut income taxes, consistently ranks at the bottom of the 50 states in its funding for crucial services.
States can act irresponsibly with wasteful spending, yes. But refusal to spend — even when the law requires it — can cause immeasurable harm. Just ask the people of Flint.