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What the Flint Water Crisis Revealed About Trust

Ten years after a water crisis in Flint, Michigan, there's reconciliation without truth.

Barbara Kalbfleisch/Shutterstock
Source: Barbara Kalbfleisch/Shutterstock

Saying you’re from Flint, Michigan, elicits the kind of sympathetic—or shocked—response from outsiders that is usually reserved for disclosures of a terminal health diagnosis. That’s exactly why “Why don’t you just leave?” is likely the single most common question posed to residents in the deindustrialized and demonstrably shrinking city. The question elicits a gnawing, conflicting inner monologue orbiting around wrenching human emotions like trust, faith, and forgiveness.

The Flint water crisis was sparked in April 2014 when the city was under state receivership, and government officials decided to switch its water source as a cost-cutting measure. That fateful decision led to widespread contamination of residents’ tap water with lead, an invisible, odorless, and tasteless neurotoxin. Lead exposures in water are associated with a glut of adverse health outcomes—among them, learning deficits, motor delays, and behavioral disorders in children and hypertension, infertility, and memory loss in adults.

Within days of the water source switch, most Flint residents knew the water quality had diminished, noticing it had a grey, brownish coloring, and a foul smell and taste. General Motors noticed too, determining that the water was corroding its engine parts, compelling government officials to immediately switch its water source back for the automaker (and only for the automaker).

Those residents who weren’t directly impacted likely had siblings, parents, and friends with unusual bouts of skin rashes, hair loss, nausea, and forgetfulness. They’re currently seeing children who were born during the crisis grow up to exhibit more hyperactive behavior and struggle to read and write at their age level than their peers who were born in the suburbs. Published research from my group and researchers from Princeton University, among others, confirms what for most in Flint have been casual, everyday observations like these.

The Psychology of Civic Trust

Since the start of the crisis, Flint’s population has fallen from around 100,000 residents to under 80,000. Many who are exiting are young adults, part of the broader “Midwexit” that has sapped much of the Rust Belt, as youth pursue cities that are more culturally diverse, safe, economically prosperous, and—perhaps most of all—trustworthy.

The psychology of trust emerged as a bonafide field of inquiry in work by German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in the 1950s. Erikson’s early work explained that humans’ first stages of development begin with a “trust vs. mistrust” phase as an infant, a phase informing all subsequent relationships (or lack thereof).

Spinoffs of Erikson's work on the psychology of trust have primarily explored fissures between romantic partners, friends, and parents and their children (much of the pioneering work in this space now serves as a basis for conflict resolution approaches in therapy). One key lesson? When relationships like these are frayed, they don’t heal from apologies and material restitution alone, but via communication creating a sense that the harm won’t recur.

Chronic disillusionment is both a symptom and cause of democracy, meaning a certain degree of distrust is necessary for democracy to function. But too much can certainly be toxic to the institution.

In describing the steep nadir in public trust that was stirred following the Great Depression, John V.C. Nye, an economist at George Mason University, explains: “What happened in the early 1930s was a loss of trust in authority, specifically a loss of faith that the institutions that ordered society could be counted on to provide stability and enable prosperity for those willing to work for it.” What followed was millions of Americans pulling their money from banks, and keeping it away. This was followed by them rallying against the political establishment in federal and state elections, stopping just short of revolution as they marshaled Franklin D. Roosevelt into the Oval Office.

Public trust in the government was buoyed back with Roosevelt’s election, propelled in part by his intimate, forthcoming “fireside chats,” his rollout of the New Deal, and the patriotic, economic boom that World War 2 produced. This civic burst in trust was short-lived, however, taking significant hits during the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon Administration–and arguably during each subsequent presidential administration that has followed.

Flint is a cautionary tale for how irresponsible leadership can quickly erode residents’ confidence that their future and their children’s future in the community is bright. To this end, a decade later, we can glean some key insights into what the reconstruction of civic trust needs to look like—not just for individual communities, but as part of a wider effort that can help stem the country’s growing public-government divide.

Making Transparency Accessible

In a 2019 Pew poll, 23 percent of Americans said that political reforms and changes, their most commonly proposed solution, would improve their trust and confidence in the government, with "more transparency, less secrecy" being particularly desired. The government has traditionally struggled—and often simply neglected—to make its work legible to the public.

The loss of trust in Flint, a predominantly Black, low-income city, wasn’t just isolated to the 34 square miles that comprise the city limits. Black America was psychically roiled by Flint’s water crisis, seeing itself, for better and worse, in the city’s besieged but resilient population. In one large national study, researchers found that Black individuals' likelihood of consuming tap water significantly dropped from 2013, the year before Flint’s water crisis, to 2018.

Transparency also isn’t just about making information available to the public—it’s about doing the outreach that actually helps to restore and strengthen confidence. Flint’s tap water has met state and federal guidelines for lead levels since July 2016, but there is also a herculean public works project underway to replace tens of thousands of water service lines in the city.

But even residents who have had their service lines replaced remain dubious about the installations’ benefits, just as they were about the water filtration approaches feverishly promoted by the state in the crisis’ aftermath. As a result, Flint residents today still overwhelmingly rely heavily on bottled water for drinking water and mundane tasks like brushing their teeth, boiling water for their meals, and the like.

When it comes to things like their water, our work shows that people actually do want to “see how the sausage is made.” Government officials in places such as Greenpoint, Brooklyn have launched highly popular tours of water treatment facilities where visitors can see the ins and outs of how their water is sourced, treated, and delivered to their homes.

In recognition of the water crisis’ 10th anniversary, Flint officials announced plans to allow residents to tour their water facilities, recognizing, albeit belatedly, the unique value of demystifying the water processing workflow and those involved in it. The government needs to help expand and better promote more opportunities for the public to see their environmental management efforts in action, fostering a connection between the public, the government, and this vital natural resource.

Civic trust also rebounds, at least partly, through direct financial restitution. Since the crisis first gained national attention in January 2016 with President Obama’s emergency declaration in Flint, city residents have called for the prosecution of former state and local political leadership responsible for the water source switch, namely former Republican governor Rick Snyder and his top lieutenants. Late last year, current Democratic leadership in Michigan botched a criminal case against these former officials, putting the kibosh on the prosecution once and for all. And although in 2021 the city landed on a $626 million class action lawsuit settlement, a large chunk of which was absorbed by the litigators, many residents report still not yet having been paid and have no sense of when (or if) they will be.

In recent years, talks of reparations for groups marginalized by the actions–and inactions–of government have gained steam, particularly in places like Canada. Last year, Canada’s federal government approved a $17 billion package for First Nations communities impacted by the country’s egregious subjugation of First Nations children in boarding schools and its child welfare system dating back to the 19th Century. South Africans also successfully pursued reparations following decades of apartheid.

In Canada and South Africa, reparations have been especially useful because they have not only focused on broader financial restitution but demanded the government acknowledge its racist and predatory legacies. Reparations in the U.S., by comparison, have historically been far less contrite and much more modest in payouts. Japanese individuals interned during World War 2 and Black men involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study were scantly compensated, with formal apologies arriving decades later (often after the victims had died).

Recently, however, lawmakers in states such as New York and California have earnestly considered reparations for Black Americans who are descendants of slaves. While most, including Black Americans, are cynical about the political feasibility of reparations, we can’t let that cynicism morph into another consequence of the lagging fight for equity in the country.

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