Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
Week 65 of the Occupation
The pursuit of profits is endangering the health and well being of everyone in Detroit. What Kevin Orr, Jones Day, and the corporate powers they serve termed a business necessity is being revealed to the world as a violation of the most basic human right to water. This crisis was orchestrated to make the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) more attractive to buyers. Claiming they are not “callous about the plight of lower income residents,” their actions show they are oblivious.
Without warning, after seeking private bids for sale of the water department, Orr and company unleashed an “aggressive” shut off program. They aimed to turn off between 1500 and 3000 households per week, if people were more than $150 behind in their bill.
This sort of aggressive, dangerous action is predictable. Decisions about our lives are being made looking at the bottom line, not at the safety, wellbeing, or quality of life of the people. These decisions are made in a vacuum, with no input or accountability.
Water Department officials scrambled to minimize the catastrophe unfolding across the city by saying, “Hey, people are paying their bills.” Claiming 60% of customers had service restored within 24 hours,” officials blame late payment on the “department’s longstanding history of tolerance” for unpaid bills and a “culture that enables nonpayment by those who can afford to.”
This is absurd. The heart of the human rights concern by the UN is that people cannot pay. This crisis is not because some people are ignoring water bills, or choosing to spend money frivolously. Rather as Kate Fried, the policy communications director for Food and Water Watch said: “This is a major crisis. When 45 percent of water customers struggle to pay their water bills, it is clear that this is not just a problem with delinquent payment. It’s indicative of broader, systemic issues resulting from decades of policies that put profits before people. Because leasing or selling the DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department] will only lead to more problems, Mayor Duggan and Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr should abandon all plans to privatize the DWSD.”
These systemic problems are well known. Nearly 38 percent of us live at or below the official poverty line, with a per capita income of $14,861. Unemployment is generously estimated at 50%. Meanwhile expenses go up, while many of us face cuts in income or increasing demands on scarce dollars.
We have just come through the worst winter on record, with skyrocketing heating bills. Many of us face the harsh choices of skipping a mortgage payment, being late with rent or foregoing medication, to prevent a shut off.
Every day, people juggle one bill against another, keeping the water on now, letting the lights go. We hope the kids make it through the summer in shoes too small. We put off visits to doctors and dentists. For more than half our city, these are daily tradeoffs.
And these tradeoffs are intensifying because of the policies of Governor Snyder, his right wing legislature, and his emergency mangers. Since Snyder had taken office, there has been a persistent and vicious war on poor people, especially people of color.
In the name of welfare reform, more than 25,000 children have lost cash assistance in Wayne County.
Pensions are taxed and benefits slashed. Elders now pay $300 to $1500 a month for medications and services once covered.
Teachers, office workers, city staff, bus drivers, health department workers, sanitation services, and social workers have all lost jobs to the “austerity measures” imposed by EM Kevyn Orr as he laid people off, eliminated jobs and privatized services.
The cumulative effects in the lives of people are devastating. Gilda Jacobs, president of the Michigan League for Public Policy. “But take a look at poverty in our state. It’s on the increase, especially for kids.”
The ugly reality of the occupation by emergency management is plain to see.