Get Real

Jewish Light Editorial

So often we hear these public debates about the role and size of government. Business interests lobby for fewer regulations, while public interest groups advocate for more protections for people’s health and safety.

Often these disagreements come in the context of philosophical differences about the place government and regulation should hold in a capitalist economy. But now we’re watching an episode unfold that couldn’t be more real world.

That episode is Flint.

By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that thousands of adults and children in the Michigan city have been exposed to lead contamination in their drinking water. And that the problems appeared to be known and largely ignored for a good amount of time by state officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder.

We also know that Flint is an utterly impoverished community with a large African-American population, a city that was devastated by the auto industry’s withdrawal as reflected in Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger and Me.” When the water source for the city was switched to the corrosive Flint River from the established, treated Lake Huron and Detroit River sources, the pipes and water produced the lead contamination problem that’s afflicted the community.

That a largely low-income place like Flint has been subjected to an environmental disaster is hardly a new circumstance. We see a crisis emerging locally with the West Lake landfill, with radioactive release threatened by the creeping subsurface fire. Many of the areas near the landfill comprise large minority and low-income populations. Flint is hardly alone in that regard.

No, what the difference in Flint appears to be is the brazen willingness of government officials to ignore the known problem, as if to deliberately thumb their noses at the most downtrodden in society. When state offices bring in bottled drinking water for their employees while failing to address and remediate unsafe conditions impacting children, one can hardly draw any other conclusion.

To her credit, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took time from her presidential campaign schedule in New Hampshire to travel to Flint to voice her outrage at the crisis, which she properly termed “immoral.” And a March Democratic debate has been set for Flint, which will bring the principal party candidates there to keep the nation’s focus on the issue.

If Clinton critics want to label her attention to Flint as political posturing, that’s certainly their prerogative. But we just want the country to fully understand what can happen when government fails to protect its citizens. Honestly, if both parties’ candidates make this a front-and-center issue in this election season, we’d love it, because the Flint situation removes the philosophical gloss from regulation and enforcement issues and translates them into real-life discrimination toward the poor and minorities.

The focus appears to be having some impact now, as members of Congress have introduced a bill to spend $600 million to remedy the contaminated water crisis in Flint.  “Congress needs to pass that bill immediately,” Clinton said. She should be joined in that call by all presidential candidates and members of Congress in both political parties.

Clinton also asked a central question: How long would it have taken to get immediate action if the drinking water supply in any predominantly white suburb had been affected?

We don’t know the answer to that, but we do know that Flint is hardly alone with its water safety issues. The Environmental Protection Agency has worked to assert enhanced jurisdiction over waterways, which would allow for the creation of more up-to-date water quality rules and enforcement of those rules. Many in Congress are opposing this jurisdiction, with President Barack Obama and those legislators engaged in a battle that — you guessed it — pits business interests against public safety.

But it seems so often that when the public safety side is ignored or minimized, the damage done is to those who have the least ability to protect themselves. The citizens of Flint would fall into that category for sure.

So those so-called hypothetical debates about business versus public safety are nice, but the pragmatic situations continue to have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable, those whose lot in life often forces them into communities that lack resources to maximize their safety. Communities that are frequently ignored by those whose vested interests lie elsewhere.

It’s utterly depressing, and it’s why issues like those in Flint, and West Lake locally, require relentless public attention and pressure. Because as the saying goes, the problems won’t fix themselves. And those charged with fixing the problems so often abandon them.