Wouldn’t such intractable financial and health woes push people to relocate? The water crisis has disrupted the “normal” order; it’s the kind of disaster that could act as a trigger or to accelerate any other change already underway. But they’re not. Unlike refugees fleeing Syria and other war zones, the majority of Flint’s population is staying put, at least for now.
Why the difference?
Syrians are risking their lives to escape their country. In Flint, by contrast, many people feel trapped or are opting to wait and see, hoping state and federal officials will fix the mess. You may think Flint residents would be quicker to move, because such a relocation would at least keep them within their own nation – maybe even in their own state – speaking the same language, eating the same foods. To migrate, Syrians must risk a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, followed by an arduous trek to refugee camps. They must join communities that are culturally foreign, even hostile, and learn a new language.
Let’s look first at why people in Flint are not moving.
1. Nowhere to go and no money to get there
To begin with, the once-booming industrial city already has experienced a massive migration outward. Since 2000, Flint lost 21 percent of its population and much of its economic activity as the auto industry collapsed. Deindustrialization in Flint, as in other Rust Belt cities since the late 1960s, resulted in “white flight” – the mass movement of affluent white families into less racially diverse suburbs. Financial emergencies in 2002 and 2011 continued to send residents elsewhere, while an upsurge in crime made the city notorious nationwide.
Most of the remaining folks have nowhere to go. With a median income ($24,834 per year) that is $20,000 below the state of Michigan’s average, most people simply cannot afford to relocate even to neighboring and underpopulated Detroit, where the cost of living is likely to be higher.
2. Adjusting to the steady erosion of public health and safety
Lead in the water supply may be a fresh injustice, but Flint communities were adapting to loss and abandonment by state and city officials long before the water became undrinkable. Flint residents are already used to living in a crumbling urban infrastructure; the contaminated water, while it may be especially shocking, is just one more in a series of accumulating insults including mediocre services, high rates of crime and arson, and an underfunded and nonresponsive city government.
In other words, getting by is the new normal. Quality of life has been steadily defined downward. The people who could actually afford to leave would have found a compelling reason to do so already.
Although lead poisoning has terribly worrisome long-term health effects, residents are getting help minimizing their exposure to the water. Celebrities such as Snoop Dogg, Cher and Michael Keaton have donated millions of bottles of water to Flint. Local volunteers are going door to door to help install water filters – a temporary and inefficient fix, although the filters do get rid of some of the contaminants.
3. No culture of mobility and no relocation routes out of the deteriorating Rust Belt
During the Great Migration from the south to the north, relatives and friends steadily sent back word of a better life in a new place. That’s not happening in Flint; there are no established relocation routes or consistent social mobility opportunities out of Rust Belt cities, no one promising easy jobs, no one sending back money and hope. Those who do make it out and find better jobs elsewhere are likely to face similar struggles with discrimination and poverty in any other American city.
Meanwhile, Flint residents benefit from an increasing sense of solidarity and the hope that things can get better. Flint is a very large and diverse city, but as political scientist Jessica Trounstine here at the Monkey Cage pointed out, zoning policies over the past 200 years have resulted in racially segregated neighborhoods. Just over half the population is black, at 57 percent, but many live in public housing or isolated, impoverished communities outside the urban core. Meanwhile, better-off white families tend to live in neighborhoods with healthier housing options and schools.
Despite the tension between separated communities, all of Flint shares an outrage at being lied to; everyone suffers from the crisis, not just poor immigrants and people of color. And although residents distrust the Michigan state legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder, they believe in Flint’s new mayor, Karen Weaver, an African American woman who has managed to get the water crisis on the agenda of Democratic presidential candidates. Her leadership has bridged many social divides.
So what’s different in Syria that pushes so many to move?
4. It’s harder to adjust to war than contaminated water
Getting bottled water is one thing. Where can Syrians turn for aid that resolves a vastly wider array of dangers? Schools have shut down for the foreseeable future. Residents risk death by aerial bombs or terrorist attacks daily. People are dying from starvation in government-besieged Syrian towns.
That’s why Syrian refugees are willing to undertake the complete upheaval and danger of a life-threatening migration out of their country.
5. Syrians are being pulled by a culture of migration
Since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations failed to create lasting change, Syrians have been trying to escape. That started with a trickle of emigration into neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, and became a flood of millions of people going still further away. During these years, people communicated with family and friends, who made it to Europe, and followed in their footsteps down already established successful routes. Social media amplified that culture by providing updated information for people on the move. Those remaining were lured out by the real prospect of a better life elsewhere with less corruption, less violence and more freedom.
Migration studies looks at all the above and more
A central issue in the study of population movements is the relationship among economic, social and political determining factors. Migration, whether permanent or temporary, can be a survival mechanism — but is rarely the result of one factor.
For example, a recent study proposed that climate change may have helped propel Syria’s civil war. A severe drought drove 1.5 million farmers to abandon their crops for cities, which already were overpopulated by immigrants fleeing the Iraq war, competing for jobs, food, housing and other increasingly scarce resources. Combined with corrupt leadership and inequality, Syria faced an uprising that eventually pushed more than 4 million Syrians to flee.
Similarly, contaminated water in Flint is not the only “push” factor influencing residents’ discussions about whether to stay or go. It takes more than one untoward event to initiate a mass population – not just one or two people but thousands or millions — into a real migration. Flint’s residents are still unsure about the extent of damages their city’s public health disaster has caused. Still to come is a long period of recovery and reconstruction. For example, homeowners are waiting to see just how hard property values have been hit and whether the federal government will provide any financial aid with repairing appliances, water heaters and damaged pipes within their homes. Flint residents might yet decide to move out if long-term solutions are not in place soon.
The Flint water crisis, lest we forget, is also about race and class struggles. Detroit journalist Stephen Henderson recently wrote that the problem is about U.S. urban policies and a “historic emphasis of suburban development on moving away from black and poor communities, stripping them of their tax base and other resources.” He points out that although the water crisis eventually will be “fixed,” that won’t be true of the larger context that helped create it in the first place.
At the moment, there is no mass migration out of Flint. But it took a steadily deteriorating situation to push millions of Syrians onto boats. Flint residents are still in shock, unsure of how to proceed. Things still might go to hell in Flint and in other American cities, causing thousands to seek a better life elsewhere.
Lolita Brayman is a Detroit-based immigration lawyer at George P. Mann & Associates, focusing on refugee and asylum issues. She holds an M.A. in conflict resolution and mediation and previously worked as an editor at the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Follow her on Twitter @lolzlita.