Presidential Candidates: Here’s What You Should Learn from Flint, Michigan

drinking water
drinking water
Much has been written about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the hundreds of children who have been exposed to lead. (photo courtesy hoolious.com)

Using the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as a case study, here are three reasons why the presidential candidates need to pay attention to and address city priorities.

As the Republican and Democratic candidates took to the debate stage in South Carolina last week, they attempted to persuade voters, particularly those in the upcoming early primary states, that they are the best candidate for the for job. With a few exceptions, there was limited discussion of city priorities: the economy, infrastructure and public safety. Perhaps that is to be expected at this stage in the campaign or because of the different natures of Republicans and Democrats, but nevertheless, the candidates are ignoring some very real issues that matter to local elected officials, cities and the future of our country.

Much has been written about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the hundreds of children who have been exposed to lead. Using this as a case study, here are three reasons why the presidential candidates need to pay attention to and address city priorities.

  1. Economy – Lead poisoning affects the brain and brain development, which effects a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school without proper educational programs and medical support. Education is the foundation of a successful career and job that not only supports one’s self and family, but helps grow our economy. How will these children fare in the world 25 years from now? If there ever is a financial settlement in this case, this small glimpse into the lives of lead-poisoned children in Baltimore demonstrates why establishing sufficient support programs, such as financial literacy programs for example, will be necessary.
  2. Infrastructure – From the most basic stand point, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan highlights the nation’s aging infrastructure problem and the need to invest—at all levels of government—in improving and maintaining our drinking water and wastewater infrastructure systems. According to the U.S. Census, local governments spend over $100 billion dollars annually, including $117 billion in 2013, on water infrastructure, but the need is close to $1 trillion over the next 20 years just to maintain our existing infrastructure.
  3. Public Safety – While recent FBI statistics indicate that the national rate of violent crime today is roughly half what it was in 1993, and is continuing to decline, lead poisoning has been linked to an increase in crime rates, even at the neighborhood level. Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Stephen Benjamin recently addressed why gun violence in cities should be a priority. Addressing mental health issues, particularly in light of Flint, Michigan, is also a necessity.

Without getting into the questions about decision making, righting this wrong will require bipartisan action and commitment from all levels of government for the long-term. In many ways, the situation in Flint is unique, but in many other ways it highlights the everyday challenges faced by cities across the country. We ask the presidential candidates to address these important city issues. Join us in this call by signing onto our Cities Lead 2016 platform.

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Program Director for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.

Program Director, Sustainability
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