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Bake Sales for Clean Water?

Years ago the peace movement asked, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if schools got all the money they needed and the Defense Department had to hold bake sales?”  Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.  Indeed, quite the opposite. Selling brownies at the PTA bake sale may be reminiscent of another generation, but private fund raising for school enrichment programs and, increasingly for basic supplies and staff, has now become big business.  Many well-heeled districts have even established foundations to accept five and six figure gifts from parents to ensure that their children get the very best.  Needless to say, the districts that need this help the most don’t have many parents capable of making such gifts.

Now, it seems, bake sales may be required to provide even the most basic of city services.  In Flint, Michigan, a recent crisis led to a major private sector fund raising effort to provide safe, clean drinking water to its residents.  Flint has been under state imposed management since its municipal government nearly collapsed under the weight of massive job and population losses caused by the departure of the once thriving automobile industry.  State management generally involves drastic cost-cutting and one element of the belt-tightening involved shifting from the more expensive Detroit water system in 2014 to water pumped out of the Flint River pending the completion of a new regional pipeline in 2016. 

For months residents of Flint have been complaining about the color, taste, and odor of the water.  While Flint’s state appointed managers claimed the water was safe, users knew otherwise.  In September new tests showed elevated levels of lead in Flint’s children.  The short term solution is bottled water and filters for over 5,000 affected households, paid for by bake sales.  Well, not exactly bake sales.  The General Motors Foundation pitched in $50,000, the United Way another $25,000, and $10,000 came from the Making our Children Smile Foundation. Area churches and other volunteers helped distribute the filters and bottled water.

I don’t mean to malign this community-wide effort to protect Flint’s families from a public health crisis, although it’s hard not to imagine that the General Motors Foundation gift is part of a larger strategy to win back public support after being discovered to have knowingly sold cars with faulty systems that led to horrific accidents and death.  Those suspicions aside, it does look as if the community rallied together as neighbors tend to do in the face of grave challenges like floods or hurricanes.

But this is not, of course, a “natural disaster.”  This is a government disaster.  While state imposed emergency take overs of municipal governments and public school systems, an increasingly frequent tactic in Michigan, have the stated purpose of restoring fiscal order to troubled cities and school districts, the preferred strategy is almost always the imposition of radical cuts in spending on public services and public employee retirement benefits, and the introduction of ideologically driven “reforms” often involving the privatization of public services and schools.

In the case of Flint, the decision of the governor’s manager to save money on water led directly to elevated lead levels in Flint’s children and to the need for bake sales – private philanthropy – to avert further damage.  We used to think the purpose of philanthropic giving was to enrich communities through museums, cultural and recreational programs, seasonal festivals, parks and other beautification programs, hospitals, and the like.  Government’s part of the bargain was to provide every citizen with certain basic needs, things like a decent education, police and fire protection, sanitary sewage systems, and clean water.  This wasn’t done because, as one recent presidential candidate so eloquently put it, people wanted “free stuff.”  It was done because, in the case of water and sewage for instance, a shared public response was crucial to avoid deadly cholera and typhoid outbreaks rampant in large cities in the 1830s and 1840s affecting the entire population. 

That social contract now appears to be crumbling, trashed by politicians on the right and even the center, and seen as an impediment to private interests eager to monetize public services for their own benefit. Congress passed a measure last week blocking the president from cutting defense spending.  No need for bake sales there.  But no such measure will be forthcoming on any other public service.  Meanwhile, charter schools expand enriching private entrepreneurs, public employees are fired, replaced by contracted workers, and public assets like highways are sold off to the highest bidder or the most politically connected one.

PTA bake sales were once a charming part of the life of moms and their children, raising a little money for special extras and helping to bind together parents, teachers and students in a common enterprise.  Public funding of public services, in turn, ensured that the basics were available to all, not just the few.  Now it looks as if bake sales or their more sophisticated philanthropic equivalents are necessary not just for the little extras, but for the basics, too – school library books and social workers, music teachers, and clean water.  One outcome, of course, is the widening gap between what communities of wealthy donors can afford to provide for themselves, and what our poorest citizens can scrape together.   Is the Flint model what we really want for America’s future?

                          John H. Thomas

                          October 15, 2015

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