Up to 100,000 people out of a population of 700,000 will have their water shut off at least temporarily in Detroit, reports The Atlantic. Thanks to a budgetary crisis, the city's water service has decided to aggressively cut off subscribers who can't or won't pay their bills at the same time it's raising water prices to double the national average. While some have been able to pay the bills, others have not. Activist Monica Lewis-Patrick claims that some old-age pensioners have been without water for almost a year. Others have decided to pay plumbers $30 or so to illegally turn their water back on. Wayne State University professor Peter Hammer calls it a "public-health emergency." Last month, the UN called the water turn-offs a violation of human rights.
And of course, it's mostly poor black people who are having their water shut off. Meanwhile, major venues like Joe Louis Arena and city-owned golf courses haven't paid their bills, but continue to get water.
Detroit's crisis has been long-coming. But it's also come to a head in the past few years thanks to a Republican governor in Rick Snyder who circumvented the democratic process to install an "emergency manager" whose solution to the city's problems has been to burn city services to the ground with a budgetary blowtorch.
It is not fun to be poor and black in Detroit.
Families in the city make just half the national average, with a 2012 median household income of just $23,600. Nearly 40% of residents are below the federal poverty line, and nearly a quarter are unemployed. The decades-long downturn has wiped out vast swathes of the city's wealth; the median house is worth just $39,100 compared to a national average of $115,700.
Sign in response to proposed Sojourner Truth Housing Project, February 1942. Image credit: Arthur S. Siegel
It's not just black people suffering from these problems, but the city's African-American residents are disproportionately impacted by everything from low high school graduation rates to jail time. Sickeningly, Detroit's infant mortality rates are now higher than China's, Mexico's, or Thailand's, and although black people comprise just 21% of Michigan's population, they account for 43% of infant deaths. These problems aren't by accident; they're by design -- the result of structural racism supported explicitly and implicitly by the Detroit metro area's white citizens, past and present. African-American workers who flocked to the city's foundries after World War II got the worst jobs, and "urban renewal" that began in the 1950s was a euphemism for the mass displacement of legions of black Detroiters whose neighborhoods were razed and who mostly were forced to relocate in universally-black neighborhoods. Race riots in the late 1960s hastened white flight, destroying the inner-city economy. Detroit is now 82.7% black.
In addition, Detroit is now the most segregated city in the country.
Fast-forward to 2014
White conservatives are still waging a war on Detroit's black population. In 2012, Michigan's Republican state legislature passed, and Republican governor Rick Snyder signed, into a law a new version of an emergency management act -- after a similar one had been rejected by 73 of Michigan's 85 counties -- that enabled him to appoint "emergency managers" to cities in distress. These unelected managers have the job of more or less supervising the end of any public program Republicans don’t want to subsidize. Emergency managers strip local politicians of their power and have complete authority to rule over local budgets and city services. They can even unilaterally violate contracts with city employees and pensioners. In short, they're a conservative wet dream, running cities like corporations interested in ruthlessly downsizing the workforce before a big sell-off.
In Detroit, that means dealing with the city's ballooning deficit and estimated $18 billion in debt. Snyder's appointee there, Kevyn Orr, has done so mainly by declaring bankruptcy, slashing pensions, demolishing public budgets, and extolling fiscal responsibility. He thinks Detroit dug its own hole and the feds have no role getting it out of it. Michigan Republicans think Detroit's problems stem from its lazy and shiftless Democratic management -- suitably leaving unmentioned decreased state revenue. In 1998 Republican governor John Engler urged Detroit to cut taxes in exchange for $333.9 annually in increased funding, which was partially rescinded in 2002. Institute of New Economic Thinking executive director Robert Johnson explains that between 2010 and 2013, over 47.8% of the total decline in state revenue was thanks to slashes in state contributions.
Orr is black and a Democrat, but he's also a corporate restructuring specialist who lives in a penthouse suite. He blames overspending for Detroit's problems, while Demos' Wallace Turbeville points out the real problems include depopulation (remember that white flight?), long-term unemployment, and plummeting income tax. Orr also largely overlooks "complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city." He has portrayed city workers as overpaid and their pensions as a necessary sacrifice, while Detroit's workers are actually underpaid relative to other Midwestern cities.
Last year, Deadline Detroit's Darrell Dawsey called Orr "Rick Snyder's hammer" and suggested that when Orr was done carving out the heart of Detroit, he'd be "flying away right along with the rest of the shameless scavengers who came here to feed." Guess what? Orr recently admitted he's eager to get the hell out of Detroit after his mandate ends in October.
Orr admits that he feels bad about some of this, but says that he has a job to do. Conveniently for Snyder, that job is imposing the state GOP's right-wing agenda on Detroit without looking overtly racist. And Democratic emergency manager or not, white Republicans are still getting the management they want in Detroit, even though they've long fled the city limits. Moreover, it's doubtful they really care whether the slash-to-the-bone strategy works, so long as the state manages to weasel out of its financial obligations to Detroit.