You haven’t heard of Tyrone Wooten and Chandra Yates, but you might want to heed their warnings.
Tyrone and Chandra live in Flint, Michigan. They are proud AFSCME union members who recently trekked to Capitol Hill, part of a 100-strong contingent of Flint residents who came to watch a congressional committee question Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and other public officials about Flint’s infamous water contamination crisis.
Yates was worried about rashes on her granddaughter and sudden deterioration of her brother, who has a mental illness, just as Wooten expressed concern about the future development of his two young children. His wife, a nurse, has come home crying about the unusual and unexplained illnesses of both children and adults.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the disaster in Flint. Officials at every level failed to do what they needed to do to protect the people of Flint. The result will be years, even decades, of suffering for thousands of families exposed to lead and other contaminants in the water.
The poisoning of Flint’s residents isn’t some out-of-the-blue occurrence. It isn’t a coincidence. It’s a consequence of a governing philosophy that puts austerity first and people last. It’s a consequence of letting our infrastructure crumble. It’s a consequence of an economic ideology that regards public services as costly and unnecessary, as though a clean, healthy, and safe community isn’t the essential right of every citizen.
From the day he took office, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had his sights set on big cuts to public services. He gutted police budgets, health programs, and schools. And one of his first cuts was to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, the very department charged with keeping drinking water safe. At the same time, he passed hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax cuts through the legislature. That, combined with cuts in revenue sharing, meant that local governments like Flint, which depend on the state, faced severe shortfalls.
The result was inevitable: The city of Flint suffered a terrible tragedy because the governor of Michigan doesn’t like government.
The decision to temporarily switch to the Flint River for the city’s water supply was a cost-cutting measure imposed by an unelected “emergency manager” appointed by Snyder. Whatever Flint saved will now cost the city and the state much more in emergency response, infrastructure improvements, and damages for those affected for years to come.
It’s not just Michiganders who will pay the price; a likely federal bailout could put all American taxpayers on the hook for this costly experiment in austerity.
The corroded pipes that leached lead into Flint’s water supply have also corroded the trust that people nationwide have in their governments. That, too, is no coincidence, but a direct consequence — and even a goal — of that same philosophy of austerity.
There are certain fundamental things we depend upon government to provide in order to give all Americans a level playing field. We expect public schools to provide an education to every child. We expect safe roads so we can get from place to place. And when we turn on the tap, we assume the water that comes out is safe to drink.
Instead, we have crumbling, moldy schools, bridges collapsing, and water that poisons our children. In turn, Americans trust government less and less. It’s the perfectly predictable result of our obsession with austerity.
It’s all quite chilling. Just listen to the working class people of Flint, like Tyrone Wooten:
“We’ve had eight deaths from Legionnaire’s Disease. We don’t know what kind of bacteria has gotten into our water because of improper treatment, not to mention the lead leaching from old pipes. This is a lesson for every community in America that we’ve got to fix our infrastructure, or it’s going to kill us.”
If you think Flint is an isolated occurrence, think again.
Here in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is now pushing an austerity budget, replete with layoffs, cuts to vital services and outsourcing, he claims reflects “the new economic reality.” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is seeking the legislature’s blessings to establish a corporate-style oversight board that would strip away local democracy and accountability.
Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist famously said he’d like government to be small enough to drown in a bathtub. With pro-austerity politicians in charge, you may not have to bother drowning the government. The water in the tub will already be poison.
Sal Luciano is Executive Director of Council 4, a union representing 32,000 workers. Council 4 can be reached on Facebook and through its Campaign4MiddleClass on Twitter @C4MC. Sign up for email updates from Council 4 here.
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