Op-Ed: A policy moonshot for Flint

Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 5:25pm

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency admitted it should have acted seven months earlier in the Flint water crisis, which began in April 2014 and is ongoing. Lead poisoning and outbreaks of bacterial diseases following the city’s switch to the Flint River as its water source have had lasting, irreversible impacts to human health. President Obama has said, “I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids' health could be at risk.”

Just before Fall Break, I tried to defend a creative policy response to the Flint water crisis to my Ford School of Public Policy classmates. The idea is simple: What if the government paid residents to move to healthier, more economically viable surrounding cities, in addition to repairing the necessary water infrastructure?

Before laying out the arguments and evidence underpinning the idea, I need to admit I quite clearly failed to convince my classmates. I pointed to research about neighborhood effects, and how the government routinely “nudges” individuals to achieve better outcomes for themselves and their communities. My arguments relied on the belief that, as individuals, we’re “rational economic agents,” processing information well and assigning prices (i.e., values) to the everyday things in our lives. To my classmates-turned-critics, I failed to consider many of the relationships, expectations and principles that form a good life.

One complaint with the idea was that justice requires much more than our government writing a check. Water is a basic human right according to the U.N. Our government has a responsibility to meet basic water needs, and failed. The government must right the wrong on principle; questions of cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness are irrelevant. Another complaint is that such a policy fails to respect the rights of individuals, that they’d be coerced into moving.

Perhaps the most damning rejoinder is that such a policy neglects, or fails to account for, the value of personal experience, communal connections and a sense of home. At risk of stating the obvious, where we are and who we interact with influence our happiness and satisfaction. The fact that local stakeholders have worked tirelessly in Flint during the crisis demonstrates the importance of these ties and interactions to residents. Furthermore, even if the amount paid to individuals reflects this value, can we really be confident that individuals calculate their own values appropriately when taking the cash? We’re all guilty of wishful thinking and acting irrationally.

My classmates were right to be initially skeptical. But the reasons supporting the rational, cost-benefit-calculating economist’s policy are also intriguing. Here’s why:

Families that move would immediately get what they need most: safe, reliable and unlimited access to water. Their kids would be in better schools immediately, without the uncertainty of whether their school was safe, or whether it might close in the coming year. Flint’s schools are still failing its students, according to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU earlier this month. And working parents could enter a local economy with better job prospects and pay. Seminal work by Harvard and University of California-Berkeley economists have documented that Flint, Genesee and Wayne County have among the lowest levels of economic opportunity and mobility in Michigan.

Moving residents could help rebuild their trust in institutions, which is in short supply among Flint residents after years of environmental and institutional racism. The New York Times wrote earlier this month that many of the first residents to have the pipes to their homes replaced continue to use bottled water, even after being told the tap was OK to use. Economic research clearly links higher levels of trust in institutions to more human development and faster economic growth. Paying residents to move might help repair this damage.

Economic outcomes could also be better in the long run, especially for families with young children. New evidence from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-sponsored Moving to Opportunity experiment, a longitudinal program starting in 1994 that resettled residents of poor communities in more affluent areas, illuminates the extent to which location affects health and economic outcomes. Individuals who moved before their 13th birthday, as a result of experimental treatment, earned 31 percent more than their counterparts who did not move. 

It could also be cost effective. President Obama is right in that, “It's not enough just to fix the water.” The educational, health and economic costs of the crisis will be enormous. Dispersing families and students could drive down the educational costs associated with lead poisoning and lost school hours. And the costs of children falling behind in school, even for those unaffected by lead poisoning, likely dwarf what might be spent on infrastructure: Students who have fallen behind and fail to recover will likely earn less on average each year than they otherwise would have. This math gets scary, quickly.

Questions about how the policy could be introduced (e.g., when, at what cost, and for whom) raise other practical issues, drawbacks and ethical concerns. I’d feel entirely different about the idea if it turned out certain demographic groups respond adversely, or even less favorably, to moving to opportunity. But don’t we owe Flint residents ambitious, creative, “moonshot”-like policy solutions?

Anthony Cozart is a graduate student in the Ford School of Public Policy.