When during the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt described a third of the population of the United States as ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed, he didn’t say how many had been that way before. It was a lot. As Henry George had observed in his classic study, Progress and Poverty (1879), progress not only went hand in hand with poverty in America, but generated it. This was poverty of a very special kind, too, since in addition to material deprivation it brought a new kind of experience: that of shame. It has been the case ever since that the poor in America are expected to feel, before even hunger or cold or homelessness, a diminished sense of personal worth and a heightened one of self-blame. Whether one bears any personal responsibility for one’s lot or not, being poor is the ultimate American crime.
Only during the Dustbowl Thirties, when the livelihoods of millions literally blew away before their eyes, was there any sense that poverty was not essentially the fault of the poor themselves. When Roosevelt invoked his famous one-third, he was thus suggesting that, perhaps, this number was higher than mere moral laxity would warrant. It took an economy that had come to a virtual standstill for such an idea to be credible, and for poverty to be seen as a problem for anyone but the poor.
World War II solved the Great Depression and created full employment, at least for a brief while. But poverty was still rife in the shadows, and it took the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s — essentially a middle class African-American uprising — to help expose it. When Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in the 1960s, he made it at last a matter of national conscience. Unfortunately, this war coincided with the one against Vietnam, which destroyed the New Deal whose legacy Johnson had hoped to complete. We — or, I should say, the poor among us — have been paying the price of our great imperial misadventure ever since. The War on Poverty had decreased the percentage of Americans living in poverty by nearly half, at least by the government’s reckoning. From that point, beginning with the long recession of the 1970s and continuing into the Reagan Eighties, that number rose steadily again. It continued to rise, except briefly in the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, until the Great Crash of 2008 ushered in a new era of poverty. Unlike the Great Depression of the Thirties, however, banking and business elites did not share in the massive wealth destruction of the Crash, for they soon not only recovered but exceeded their former profitability.
How many Americans should be regarded as poor today? The federal government’s laughable measurements suggest that perhaps 15 percent of the total population, and 20 percent of children, should be regarded as living in poverty. But if you regard, as I do, anyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck (assuming the employment of at least one family member), or in such condition that an unexpected bill of, say, a thousand dollars can precipitate a financial crisis, then that number is much closer to half of all Americans. The relevant measure of poverty is thus not the constant or recurrent experience of hunger or homelessness, real as such facts are for tens of millions among us, but the chronic insecurity that leaves one without the resources to meet adversity or even ordinary bad luck. To be poor is, simply, to live suspended over an abyss.
This brings us to Flint. In our long national retreat from Franklin Roosevelt’s promise of a world free of want as the birthright of all Americans, we have poverty not only maintained but deliberately created as a result of policies that, having produced communities almost entirely dependent on single industries, facilitate their desertion of them in pursuit of cheaper labor and higher profits. This is not a phenomenon unique to America—one has only to think of the destruction of the British Midlands—but the United States is the only advanced Western nation without a jobs policy aimed at protecting citizen employment. And killing jobs makes poverty: it is the only perfect one-to-one equation in economics.
Once, Flint, Michigan was synonymous with General Motors, which employed 80,000 of its residents. GM began to bail out on Flint in the late 1970s, and by 1989 the city’s deliberate destruction had been chronicled in Roger and Me by its most famous native son, the filmmaker Michael Moore. Roger made Moore a national figure — and Flint the country’s poster child of urban decay. By the early 2000s, everyone who could afford to escape Flint had done so. That trapped a population of about 100,000 which, in a collapsed real estate market that the Great Crash would crater completely, could not sell out at a price that would enable it to move, or sell at any price at all. As in such cases generally, women and children were the most vulnerable, and the most apt to be left behind. They were left a prey to rising crime and drug rates, too, and finally, in a state of destitution and anarchy, of their ultimate predator, the State of Michigan and its Republican governor, Rick Snyder.
The story is now familiar, and not in Flint alone. The State took over a city government that, without resources, could no longer function, and subjected its helpless residents to a Darwinian experiment in cost-cutting. Part of this involved decoupling the city’s water supply from Detroit’s, and forcing it to use the local river, contaminated by decades of industrial pollution. Chemical treatment was supposed to make it potable; instead, it released lead from corroded pipes that, combined with other toxins, made for a witches’ brew that ran brown and stinking from household taps. Children exposed to it suffered irreversible brain and organ damage. Resident protests were ignored; evidence of catastrophic health effects was suppressed. Michigan had created its own Warsaw Ghetto, in which a captive population was wilfully subjected to mass poisoning—that is, to genocide. The story has concentrated on the water issue, but Flint’s destruction, as of the Rust Belt generally, has been a process of decades. Lead in the baby’s bathwater or from a mother’s nipple was only the coup de graçe.
Similar stories have begun to come out of other depressed communities such as Sebring, Ohio, but Flint stands for now as the prime case of a city deliberately and quite literally marked for death. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty can now be seen as an aberration in the America’s history. The real and enduring war is the one against the poor themselves.
General Motors, meanwhile, is a story of another kind. Having steadily lost market share despite destroying Michigan’s working class, it diversified into so-called financial products services and went bankrupt in the Great Crash, only to be bailed out by the federal government and restored to profitability courtesy of the American taxpayer. In Darwin’s world, some species thrive, and others perish. But it really helps to have a friend in Washington.
The politicians have discovered Flint on the presidential campaign trail, and Hillary Clinton, always alert to a political or corporate buck, has rushed to cash in on the city’s misery. Certainly there is no better symbol of the depths the country has reached after 50 years of reaction. A society that eats its young writes its own epitaph. As for a society that poisons them . . . well, as Tom Jefferson memorably said, “I tremble for my country when I consider that God is just.”
Of course, Jefferson was talking about slavery, not hydro-contamination. And he kept on keeping slaves.