Flint: An American Failure

The story of Flint—the Michigan city in which people were harmed by drinking water that contained lead and lethal bacteria—is a warning to all struggling US communities that confront disinvestment, declining population, excessive financial focus, incompetent leadership, nontransparent government, and racism. Flint is also a tale of a persevering community, good doctors and scientists, and courage. The various facets of this story were captured ably in two recent books: What the Eyes Don’t See, by physician Mona Hanna-Attisha, and The Poisoned City, by journalist Anna Clark.

As cities and states go, Flint and Michigan could be considered all-American. From the 1930s to the 1960s Flint’s average incomes were among the highest in the country, thanks to a powerful company (General Motors [GM]) and the United Auto Workers union. The Buick plant in Flint was at one time the largest factory in the world, and Michigan was critical to US production needs in World War II. The automotive industry had made many people in Michigan wealthy and created a strong middle class, though African Americans did not fare as well as others. For example, when GM built affordable worker housing in Flint, blacks were mostly excluded, both Clark and Hanna-Attisha report.

In the postwar era the movement of more prosperous white people from older cities to the suburbs was accelerated due to easy highway access, lower taxes, cheap fossil fuels, and racism. Meanwhile, the very limited housing and job options for poor black people fueled inner-city riots. Over the same period, the auto companies—the economic engine of the city—were closing manufacturing plants and moving to areas with lower material and labor costs.

– Health Affairs

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