Have you ever thought about what it would be like to not be able to brush your teeth? Have you ever wondered what you would do if you could not bathe, or turn on the tap and have a nice cool drink of water? What would it be like to be unable to cook a meal for your family because turning on the faucet yields a brown, foul smelling liquid? Well, the people of Flint Michigan were (and still are) encapsulated in a living nightmare.
The Flint Water Crisis flooded timelines and news headlines in recent months. This situation outraged people all over the country for different reasons. Environmentalists were disgusted about the effects of the tainted water on the environment. Political analysts demanded Republican governor Rick Snyder’s head mounted on a stake because he knew about the problem and could have solved it before a significant number of people—including many children— were harmed. Congress has called on him to give an account for his actions. Activists sent water by the truckload insisting that this is a modern day example of how those who do not enjoy a high level of socio-economic status were sacrificed in the name of money and greed.
Doctors and health professionals have commented on the irreversible damage the contaminated water has caused i.e. sickness and disease, loss of teeth, skin disorders, brain damage and developmental delays in children. The unavailability of clean lead free drinking water inflicts psychological damage on those living in a depressed community because they were denied one of their basic, essential needs. It is all quite sickening. However, the community of Flint is not the only place that has been affected by a health hazard on this level.
As it turns out, these inhuman conditions can come in several different flavors. In Porter Ranch, California, a leaking injection well was reported in October of last year and wasn’t contained the until February 2016. The Southern California Gas Company (SCGC) is the company responsible for roughly 83,000 metric tons of methane gas being released into the atmosphere as initially it was reported that early attempts to fix the leak were unsuccessful. The health of approximately 30,000 people was compromised as many could have easily experienced symptoms and injuries including but not limited to asthmatic symptoms, brain fog, lightheadedness, nausea, and nosebleeds. Those living in the communities have filed lawsuits against SCGC as well as the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. Now, there seems to be another leak in that same area and another oil company, The Termo Company, is responsible for emitting methane into the air. They own and operate oil wells on property belonging to SCGC and allegedly tried to conceal the leaky pipe.
In Motor City, Detroit, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation refinery made a plan to produce cleaner burning vehicle fuel as required by new federal standards—which all sounds fine. That is, until you understand that the cleaner fuel can only be produced at the expense of the nearby residents in Boynton, which happens to be Michigan’s most polluted zip code. State regulators have explained that the fumes residents smell and breathe on a daily basis include sulfur dioxide, which causes asthma, respiratory illnesses, and bronchitis. It can also aggravate heart disease and lead to hospitalization and premature death, per the Environmental Protection Agency. What’s worse is that state regulators approved even higher emissions in a community where the residents were already exhibiting signs of illness.
Most recently, Jackson, Mississippi, has been reported to be experiencing what some say is the Flint Water Crisis of the South. Jackson, Mississippi, like Flint, Michigan, is a majority black city in a state with a Republican governor. The question is how are these things happening? Why are these events able to go on weeks, months, and years before public outcry or before demanding a solution?
It is because economic liberalism has come back onto the scene with a vengeance. Before the Great Depression, there were little built-in protections as the American stock market thundered, and profits were at an all-time high. After the market crashed in 1929, banks failed, revenue all but dried up, and many businesses were bankrupt resulting in unemployment for roughly a quarter of the population.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal improved life for many Americans by establishing a farm assistance program, set minimum prices and wages, and regulated the out of control stock market industry giving Americans confidence by guaranteeing bank deposits. This historic and life altering compilation of laws passed from roughly 1933-1938 was the answer to the issues of the Great Depression The New Deal evolved out of the belief that government should advance the common good. President Roosevelt’s social programs, as well as his plans to deliver economic stability and meaningful employment opportunities to the American people were designed to allow people to live decent lives with dignity and respect. However, within the last several years, the drastic ebbs and flows of shrinking corporate profit margins and economic growth have been linked to recession-like conditions. The uncertainty has alarmed the corporate elite, and the conditions have been perfect for economic liberalism to rear its capitalistic head (again).
Neoliberalism encompasses several smaller concepts that could be seen as ways to stimulate economic growth and increase economic prosperity. However, when put together, neoliberal policies leave poor, disenfranchised populations with circumstances that are hard to swallow, by de-unionizing workers, and lowering wages, all under the guise of enabling a free market. Once the markets are deregulated and the government cannot impose proper restrictions to ensure that environmental and safety guidelines are met, that leaves the door open to budget cuts where social services are concerned. With lower wages, no union to lean on, and a non existent safety net, it is easy to see why those without means not only start at a disadvantage, but also find it nearly impossible to pull themselves up using their proverbial bootstraps. Plainly put, under these circumstances, somone in a bad situation due to sickness or job loss is screwed.
Another part of this neo-liberalism movement means taking public enterprises like the construction of roads, schools, hospitals, and the management of utilities like water and power and allowing them to be run by big corporations. All of this puts the onus on the poor to ‘take responsibility’ for their lack of education, healthcare, job prospects, or financial stability. Those who have been marginalized are expected to not speak out about deplorable conditions, and keep their heads down while they try to raise funds to leave communities that are contaminated, take on multiple jobs so that they can put food on the table and afford medical insurance.
Why? Because their current job has no upward mobility and their benefits package is inadequate; it won’t improve because they have no bargaining power because they no longer have the support of a labor union. When the company needs to widen profit margins and jobs are eliminated, the budgets for the programs that they may need to rely upon to provide their families with food, shelter and utilities will have already been cut. They will be told that they need to improve their skills by going back to school or taking up a new trade, but they will likely be unable to afford to do that because they are barely making ends meet–see the problem?
To illustrate my point, let’s look at Michigan. Those in power in the Great Lakes state have worked hard at attacking and dismantling organized labor in the state–the effects of which lower wages significantly and give workers less bargaining power where benefits are concerned. If someone loses a job in Michigan and needs to get state assistance, they may not be able to receive benefits; if they do, they may only be able to collect assistance for a short time as the budgets for programs that provide benefits for needy families have been significantly diminished.
In Flint, the government knew for months that the water system was dangerous. Flint, Michigan is predominantly black and impoverished. The people there did not have the resources to fight a corrupt government and or simply leave the community. Instead, they were forced to endure irreversible pain and suffering at the hands of the government who knew their fate and did nothing.
What leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the fact that the circumstances in this country are perfect for incidents like those in Michigan and California. We will likely see similar occurences taking place in other parts of our country that do just as much to destroy communities and families. Yes, it is wonderful for caring and concerned folks to continue to send water and supplies to Flint. Yes, it is good to support those in Porter Ranch seeking to hold SCGC accountable, but what we really should be looking for is an answer to the passivity and acceptance we have given to the sacrifice zones that are created by neoliberalism—a philosophy that is proving to have bitter-tasting consequences.Image Credits: Linda Parton / Shutterstock.com