Flint as a Network Problem

The residents of Flint, MI have been the victims of a state government that chose to save money rather than provide safe drinking water. (here is a good recap.) Certainly, in the moment of decision for the state caretakers of Flint, the choice wasn’t so stark between saving money and providing water tainted with lead, but that, of course, was the result.

But that is just the presenting problem, in the lingo of social workers. Poisoning the residents of Flint wasn’t the intended outcome of the state’s effort to drag the city out of bankruptcy, it was a consequence of decades of policies that left the residents of Flint isolated and disempowered.

Desegregating schools and neighborhoods lost favor over the past forty years. As the idea of moving people around to give them access to safer neighborhoods and better schools fell out of fashion, the resulting resegregation of housing and schools left residents of low-income communities like Flint isolated.

The people of Flint lack the “bridging” power of social networks. This means that they literally can’t be heard outside of their own neighborhoods. Rich neighborhoods get better services than low-income ones because of their social networks. When rich people shout, government officials jump. When poor people shout, it is easy to ignore them because there are generally no ramifications for not listening (unless, of course, you are literally killing them with rusted water, then, eventually, someone will listen.)  Isolated, low-income people have no regular social contact with powerful people. So, instead of bumping into Bill at the club and telling him that the water is brown, a person in Flint sends an email to info@stategovernment.gov. It is as effective as opening their window and shouting into the wind.

I don’t believe that the policies of elected officials were intentionally created to harm the people of Flint. This doesn’t excuse the inaction after officials learned of the lead poisoning, but I consider that reflective ass-covering and fear for their jobs rather than intentional policy.

Social isolation is a huge barrier for low-income people to overcome. It results in communities being isolated and disempowered. Power means being heard, but you can only be heard if you have access to the right people to listen. Social media help the unheard have a voice, eventually, but as Eli Pariser outlined in his fantastic book, The Filter Bubble, commercialized online networks like Facebook and Twitter, are also isolating people by reinforcing their existing social networks rather than helping them bridge to new ones.   (Here is a link to Eli’s Ted Talk.)

Income inequality is a bad, and historically bad in the United States right now, but social isolation is even worse for the well-being of people. Out of sight, out of mind, so the rich and powerful.


About the author

Allison Fine

Copyright © 2018 Allison Fine