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In Flint, is philanthropy stepping in for government?

Paths to progress

Ten charitable organizations have pooled their resources to donate $125 million toward recovery efforts in Flint, Mich. While the aid is welcome, some say it highlights the failings of government to provide for its people. 

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    Mari Copeny, 8, of Flint, Mich., leans into another protester as they hold hands, after Gov. Rick Snyder testified at a hearing in front of the US House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
    Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com/AP
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Funds are about to flood into Flint, Mich. – but they’re not coming from the government.

Ten charitable organizations are pledging a combined $125 million to help the city recover from its water crisis, which has left anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 children exposed to dangerous levels of lead. The money will go toward subsidizing ongoing water testing, supporting local community groups, and revitalizing Flint’s sagging economy, among other efforts, the groups announced Wednesday.

The efforts are meant to provide short-term relief as well as long-term assistance – and underscore a growing trend among nonprofits to pool resources to move quickly where bureaucracy bogs down government response.

“This is the new normal, in terms of how philanthropy can really increase its impact and be nimble while we wait for the state and federal government [to act],” says La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which is one of the 10 organizations that have pledged to help Flint.

The foundations’ aid is welcome and showcases the kind of partnerships that help charitable dollars go further, observers say. But some economists say it also highlights a persistent need for stopgap measures and the limits of governmental systems that can clog essential funding or, perhaps unwittingly, prioritize spreadsheets over citizens' well-being.

Questions about aging infrastructure and appropriate levels of funding for public services are hardly unique to Michigan, but that state's long-term economic challenges mean that they have been writ large in the former manufacturing powerhouse. And like many other states, Michigan has a Republican-led state government and Democratic-run cities. In an era of political polarization, cooperation between the two remains difficult, but it is vital for the long-term future of residents.

“It’s great that we have charitable organizations that are willing to step up and try to help,” says Charles Ballard, a professor of economics and director of the State of the State Survey at Michigan State University in Lansing. “But the only reason we’re talking about this in the first place is that governments, most notably the state of Michigan, just dropped the ball in a huge way. This didn’t have to happen.”

There is no question that Flint's problems did not begin on April 2014, when the water supply was switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River by a state-appointed emergency manager, in what was billed at the time as a cost-saving measure. Since the 1970s, Flint has shed half its residents – going from 200,000 people to 99,000. In 2013, the median household income was $24,834, with 42 percent of residents living below the federal poverty level.

But the state's controversial emergency manager law – which Michiganders voted to overturn in 2012, before it was reinstated by legislators in Lansing – is emblematic of a top-down system that, critics say, prizes the bottom line over other, perhaps more important, considerations. In Michigan, critics say that system also has racial overtones: Over the past five years, more than 50 percent of Michigan’s African-American residents have lived in a city with an emergency manager, whose powers eclipse those of the locally elected leadership, Vox reported in January.

Flint residents began reporting a bad taste and odor in their water in April 2014, immediately after the switch. State officials did not respond until October 2015, a year and a half later – after tests revealed that levels of lead far above those recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency had leached into the water from old service lines. A recommended anticorrosive agent was never added to the water coming from the Flint River.

An independent task force concluded in March that Flint “is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”

The crisis is not a result of one bad choice, Professor Ballard and others say. “Nobody got up in the morning at any time and said, ‘I want children in Flint to be poisoned,’ ” Ballard says. “Nobody explicitly did that. But we passed policies that made that sort of thing inevitable.”

The Michigan Legislature's tight hold on the purse strings comes after the state's "lost decade," marked by declining population and finances, which was exacerbated by the Great Recession. But those policy decisions have drained Michigan cities of the resources they need to flourish, Ballard says.

“Michigan incubates financial stress among its local governments,” a 2015 MSU study notes. “Michigan’s particular mix of stringent limitations on local revenue and its relatively low level of financial assistance to cities, coupled with spending pressures stemming from spiking local service burdens and increased labor costs, creates conditions that drive up the potential for local fiscal distress.”

Government response

Since October, when the crisis became known, the Legislature approved $9.3 million to help Flint switch back to the Detroit water system, then signed off on another $28 million in January for services such as treating children with high blood-lead levels and replacing plumbing fixtures in schools and other public facilities. In January, the state announced a one-time $575 million windfall from greater-than-expected tax revenues.

A month later, lawmakers allocated an additional $30 million meant to help Flint residents pay for their water bills, which are among the highest in the nation. The puts the total earmarked by the state for Flint’s recovery at $67 million.

Gov. Rick Snyder also has recommended another $165 million that has yet to be approved by the Legislature, says Kurt Weiss, spokesperson for the state budget office.

“The governor has called for a total of $232 million – that would include the supplementals and the additional money we’ve asked for for next year,” Mr. Weiss says. “We just don’t know if we’re going to get that full [amount] until we’ve worked through the legislative process.”

On the federal level, the Obama administration in January made $80 million in funding available to Michigan. Congress is considering a $220 million package of grants and loans for Flint and for drinking-water infrastructure throughout the United States.

In the long run, the allocation of government funds may be enough to get Flint through the crisis, some say. But other issues exist that need to be addressed right away – and that's where philanthropic money can move more quickly than bureaucracy.

“Even with the state stepping up, there are needs out there that just can’t wait for the state to appropriate the money and wait for the bureaucratic channeling of funds that has to take place,” says Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a public policy research group in Lansing. “That’s not pejorative, that’s a fact of life.”

“If you live in the city of Flint,” he adds, “you don’t want to wait for the money to show up. You want to take your kids to the doctor now.”

Not a 'silver bullet'

The collaborative funding initiative announced Wednesday hopes to step in to fill gaps left by government. The foundations will focus on six priorities that include funding experts who will make sure Flint’s water is safe to drink, investing in job training and entrepreneurship in the city, and helping local nonprofits expand their ability to serve their communities. But Ms. Tabron and others also say that their goal is to provide support and work with public officials – not take on the government’s responsibilities.

“Our plan is designed to complement the state’s plan,” says Ridgway White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which is headquartered in Flint and has pledged up to $50 million for the city's recovery efforts this year alone. “We’ve seen a deep compassion for the city” among public officials, he adds. “We just need to turn those words into action right away – which is what philanthropy is doing right now.”

Some say the concerted efforts of big nonprofits could have enormous impact. 

“New possibilities open up because of these gifts," writes Jenna Bednar, a professor at the University of Michigan's department of political science, in an e-mail. “These gifts aren't Band-Aids; they are like knee replacement surgery. Detroit is growing again, and Flint too will be stronger because of it. We are lucky in Michigan to have so many foundations that are locally minded and future-focused.”

But while these issues have become an opportunity to increase the influence and voice of the nonprofit sector, it's not a long-term substitute for functioning government.

“I don’t think this is the silver bullet for the future of this country,” Tabron says. “We have to get our governments to work. We’re stepping up, I would say into this void, but it is my hope that it doesn’t continue to be this way.”

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