The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Flint’s children can’t leave the city that poisoned them

( <a href="">Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post</a> )

On a map of American disadvantage, Genesee County, Mich., stands out as a troubling outlier for the Midwest and even the entire nation.

The places where children grow up deeply affect the kinds of lives they lead as adults. Some places nurture children in ways that become apparent years later; others hold them back. Simply growing up in Genesee County, economists now know, means that a child from a poor family will earn about 20 percent less at age 26 than a child raised in an average place in America. That's worse than in the cities of St. Louis or Baltimore or some of the poorest rural counties in the American South.

Rank nearly 2,500 U.S. counties this way — by how much they lift or depress the adult earnings of poor children — and Genesee sits fifth from the bottom. It is one of the bleakest places to grow up in America. It is the home of Flint, Mich.

In Flint, tainted water, little hope

As Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders meet there Sunday night for the next Democratic presidential debate, this grim fact poses a difficult question. Let's say we invest in every way imaginable in the children of Flint who've been exposed to lead poisoning through their household faucets. We give them the best nutrition, the best health care, the best after-school programs educators can design. What will that amount to? Can we even give these children every advantage possible when they live in one of the most disadvantaged places in the United States?

"It seems hard to imagine that you could," says Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist who has worked on the sweeping study that has shown in detail how geography helps determine a child's life chances. It wasn't simply the decision to switch the city's water supply that prevents children there from reaching the American dream, he says.

There is so much else in Flint that drives that outcome, too: the segregation of the poor, the city's finances, the dwindling population, the long-term decline of industry and decent jobs, the high crime rate, the vacant properties, the struggling schools. Investments we could make in individual children whose brains and bodies been been harmed by a potent neurotoxin will push against all these other forces, too.

And so perhaps the best thing we could do for the children of Flint, in addition to attentive care, is offer their families a chance to move somewhere else, to go to one of those places like nearby Clinton County where we know that children thrive.

Ask families in Flint, and many want to leave. They don't know when the water will be safe again or whether they can trust what officials say. But the same problems that harm them trap them there, in the middle of an environmental disaster. “What are we going to do?” Kala Green, 72, asked The Washington Post's Lenny Bernstein. “Ain’t nobody gonna buy our homes.”

Others who might want to go don't have the money to pay higher rents in a more expensive community, or the means to search for housing there, or familiarity with where those places might be.

"Is it better for children in the long run to leave the community versus stay? First and foremost, that’s the parents' decision," says Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. "And we shouldn't be forcing people one way or the other. But we’re not giving really low-income parents a choice."

Flint's children and the burden of betrayal

He cites all of the health outcomes that researchers have linked to housing: neighborhood violence is connected to stress hormones, dilapidated housing to asthma triggers, poverty to pollution. Studies of a federal experiment that helped families move with housing vouchers to low-poverty communities have found that parents had lower rates of obesity and diabetes and girls had better mental health. Giving children a chance to move would mean changing not just their school districts or their exposure to crime; it could change their health. And that is precisely what we are most worried about right now in Flint.

"It’s going to take a lot of time to fix the water situation there, the pipes in general," says Alison Bell Shuman, who runs a program in Baltimore that helps poor families use their housing vouchers to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. "And these families don’t have time. These kids need something now."

She argues that it would be easiest to start in Flint with the 860 families there — and their 1,068 children — who already have federal housing vouchers, and she has offered assistance from Baltimore's widely recognized mobility program.

Resettling even temporarily as many 9,000 children, as Columbia University's Irwin Redlener has advocated, would be a vastly more complex undertaking. There are families who would choose to stay. But what about those who want to leave? Can we accept that they don’t have that choice?

These questions in Flint broach a larger discussion about how best to help children in distressed communities that should figure into Sunday's presidential debate — assuming that its location in Flint makes such topics harder to breeze past than in the Republican debate Thursday night in Detroit.

If we do help families move, what happens to the disinvested places they leave, and the people who choose (or have no choice) to stay there? Are resources better spent trying to revive Flint, or helping people who want to abandon it? Or — because many people say we must do both — how do we balance those two goals when the one complicates the other? As more people leave Flint, especially those with any means to leave on their own, that could make it harder to rebuild a community where future children will prosper.

"It’s the hardest question that we’re faced with now that we think places matter," Hendren says.

This is an old debate among advocates and academics  concerned about the poor — whether we ought to pour our intentions into places or people. But Flint has made the question even more urgent.

More from Wonkblog:

The poor are better off when we build more housing for the rich

Flint's poisoned water was among the most expensive in the country

This is how toxic Flint's water really is