The great infrastructure projects that transformed cities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were among the most effective measures ever taken against inequality. The poor suffered much more from muddy streets, inadequate sewers and unsafe water than the rich, and also from diseases like typhoid fever, cholera, yellow fever and malaria. Life in some European slums was not much different from life in the slums of Rio or Lahore today. So when cities began to pave all of their streets, build sidewalks in all their neighborhoods, and provide clean water and good sewers to everyone, the poor benefited the most. Later on they benefited from the universal provision of gas, electricity, and cable TV.
The water crisis unfolding in Flint shows what happens when governments back away from the promise of universal services. Flint is pretty much bankrupt, hollowed out by the collapse of local industry and middle class flight. In order to save a paltry sum of money, the state-appointed city managers switched their water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River. People immediately began to complain about the smell and taste of the water, but the city insisted there was nothing to worry about. Even after tests were published showing that the water was contaminated, the city still did nothing. Only when an outside group tested the blood of children in Flint and found elevated levels of lead did this turn into a public crisis.
The immediate problem is that Flint River water contains chemicals that, while not considered toxic in themselves, caused large amount of lead to leach into the water from old pipes and other sources. The water coming out of many taps in the city averages 27 parts lead per million, and some readings are much higher; the EPA considers 5 parts per million "cause for concern."
To me this shows the long-term danger of ongoing changes in America's economy and society. Increasingly, the rich live in separate communities from the poor, with their own infrastructure. If the water smells bad, rich people install their own filters or have water trucked in. I think this is wrong. I think at a minimum we should insist that everyone has a right to a certain level of public service: clean water, clean air, adequate sewers, reliable electricity, functioning schools, police who fight crime instead of shooting bystanders. I would like to expand this list to include health insurance, mental health care, and drug treatment. I think taxes on those who can pay should be raised to cover those things.
Michigan governor Rick Snyder doesn't seem like a bad guy, and now that he has focused his attention on the problem I think he can probably get it cleaned up. I think, though, that he should reconsider his whole approach to government. He is one of those Republicans who wants government to run "more like a business." If he can find inefficiencies and correct them, great. But government isn't a business. Businesses provide services to those who can pay and have the non-payers arrested for loitering. Government must provide for everyone.
When government abandons its mission to provide for everyone, and puts cutting taxes above that mission, crises like the one in Flint are inevitable.