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Gilda Jacobs's picture

Whether you’re Governor Rick Snyder or Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow or Jimmy Fallon, Madonna or Ziggy Ansah, it’s all about Flint right now. The same is true for us here at the League. This man-made disaster has drawn the national spotlight to Michigan for all the wrong reasons. Every day another story or scandal arises. But for me, the main question is: What do we do now?

Fixing the poisoning of Flint’s water will require action in every single area of public policy. It is a public health issue. It is an environmental issue. It is an infrastructure issue. It is an education issue. It is an economic issue. It is a racial issue. And down the road, it will likely become a corrections issue. State government largely caused this problem, and at every turn, it must be there to help. This is a battle that must be fought on all fronts, with offensive and defensive strategies, and the League is committed to that.

As heartbreaking as this crisis is, it has the potential to draw attention to the larger health plight of low-income kids and families. Unfortunately, lead poisoning is yet another issue that inordinately affects low-income residents and people of color. This is certainly true in Flint, with 40% of people living in poverty. With many social determinants for health in kids’ environment and community, the odds are stacked against low-income children from the onset.

Lead exposure was already a problem for kids in poverty, due largely to paint in old houses. But because of the Flint debacle, these kids have been drinking and bathing in lead. Low-income kids are at particularly high risk of lead poisoning due to poor diets and nutritional deficits. There is currently no traditional grocery store in Flint where healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and milk are available. There is one school nurse for the entire Flint school district. Economic struggles also create high-stress environments that take a toll on kids’ health.

The lifelong consequences of lead poisoning have been documented, including developmental and behavioral issues, learning disabilities, academic struggles, and even criminal behavior and potential incarceration. These kids didn’t ask for this. The least their government can do is help them through these challenges.

The failure in Flint has brought to light another problem. Michigan as a whole has an infrastructure problem, and it’s due to years of disinvestment. We called the Flint water crisis a “canary in the coal mine” for future infrastructure collapses and related health disasters around the state.

Flint’s catastrophe points out the need to remove and replace lead water pipes in the city and anywhere else in the state. We must all agree that we can’t keep running our drinking water over poisonous pipes, regardless of what additives are in it. Detroit public school buildings are leaking and literally falling apart, full of mold and rodents. Kids can’t learn in an unsafe environment. We can’t keep cutting funding and expect the infrastructure that depends on it to hold up.

The League sees the need for a three-pronged approach to fixing Flint and preventing such a disaster from ever happening again. First, the state must address the current crisis, updating the city’s infrastructure and restoring a safe and reliable water system, getting all kids tested for lead, and implementing educational, nutritional and medical safeguards to help those who have been exposed.

Second, the governor and legislators must outline a proposal for ensuring Flint kids have the care they need throughout their lifetime. This includes making a decades-long commitment in funding and services that lasts beyond any one governor or Legislature. We can’t leave the future of these kids at the mercy of political whims.

Third, policymakers must heed the current crises in Flint and Detroit Public Schools as a sign of things to come, and invest in and update our infrastructure accordingly. The disaster in Flint should never have happened, and it can never be made completely right. But for our state government, learning from their mistakes and vowing not to repeat them is a crucial step.

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