What might it take for politically marginalized residents to challenge cuts in public spending that threaten to harm their health and wellbeing? Specifically, how did residents of Flint, Michigan contribute to the decision of an austerity regime, which was not accountable to them, to spend millions to switch to a safe water source? Relying on evidence from key interviews and newspaper accounts, we examine the influence and limitations of residents and grassroots groups during the 18-month period between April 2014 and October 2015 when the city drew its water from the Flint River. We find that citizen complaints alone were not sufficiently able to convince city officials or national media of widespread illness caused by the water. However, their efforts resulted in partnerships with researchers whose evidence bolstered their claims, thus inspiring a large contribution from a local foundation to support the switch to a clean water source. Thus, before the crisis gained national media attention, and despite significant constraints, residents’ sustained organization—coupled with scientific evidence that credentialed local claims—motivated the return to the Detroit water system. The Flint case suggests that residents seeking redress under severe austerity conditions may require partnerships with external scientific elites.As to scalar dumping, the paper explains that:
A central feature of neoliberal governance in the United States has been the production of austerity conditions in cities. Jamie Peck (2012) has described how urban austerity regimes emerge through processes of scalar dumping, whereby financial responsibility for public goods is passed down from national to state and local governments. The logical priority that scalar dumping sets in motion is clear: cash-strapped cities must either raise revenue through taxes, fees, or service costs for public goods or they must cut spending. Scalar dumping disproportionately strains cities like Flint, which have already suffered severely because of deindustrialization, residential abandonment, aging infrastructure, high poverty rates, and racial segregation. Thus, although a city’s municipal budget is shaped by a range of economic factors beyond the control of city leaders, financial hardships tend to be borne by residents.
When cities fail to be self-sufficient, officials may employ legal tools such as emergency management laws to label budget shortfalls as financial “emergencies.” This characterization can provide justification for punitive intervention—including democratic curtailment coupled with cuts to public services—by higher levels of government (state, national, or international). Thus, austerity is indeed a “politically imposed condition”. Additionally, by characterizing the city as experiencing a fiscal emergency, policies that entail additional public spending are removed from contention and effectively blocked from the political agenda. And by focusing on the short-term alleviation of fiscal problems, longer-term structural problems—such as the loss of revenue due to a declining tax base, decreases in state revenue sharing, and growing unemployment—are cast outside the sphere of public debate. [internal citations omitted]The authors explain that “social action is necessary to counter the dangerous effects of austerity policies,” but note that “the possibilities for democratic influence have been severely curtailed. Additionally, as environmental regulatory rules are relaxed, 'the operating principle is that toxic chemicals are presumed innocent of harming human health unless proven guilty.'” They conclude by noting that the emergency management system that led to Flint's water crisis remains in place, and quote Clare McClintock of the Democracy Defense League that “This is a new model of governance that is dangerous and unacceptable. And it’s spreading to a town near you.”