Is Washington creating more Flints?

The lead-poisoning scandal in Flint, Michigan, seems like exactly the kind of crisis that demands Washington's help: a cash-strapped city with governance problems found itself delivering toxic heavy metal to its children through their faucets. Now, it desperately needs money to update its water system safely.

And from a distance it appears that Congress is riding to the rescue: A billcurrently in the Senate would try to help towns like Flint by pumping another $1 billion a year into water utility projects across the country. If it passes, it would boost total spending by Washington on water utilities to around $5.3 billion per year.

But pull back far enough, and Washington's approach looks less like a rescue than a long, slow abandonment. The past 38 years have actually been marked by a huge federal retreat from helping cities fund water projects. Accounting for inflation, the Congressional Budget Office estimates federal spending on water utilities has dropped 75 percent since 1977. The U.S. population has grown by 100 million people over that time, which means the burden of supplying and cleaning their water has gone up—and is now borne almost entirely by cities and states. It takes an especially heavy toll on the people of poorer cities like Flint, with an average income of $39,000. The city’s lead problem was, after all, the result of a badly managed attempt to save money.

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Jan Deliz