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Flint children never had a fair shot, even before lead poisoning

A man has his blood drawn to have free tests run to check for lead poisoning on January 23, 2016, at the Masonic Temple in Flint, Michigan.
A man has his blood drawn to have free tests run to check for lead poisoning on January 23, 2016, at the Masonic Temple in Flint, Michigan.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

On one level, the Flint lead poisoning scandal is about a state mismanaging a city under financial duress and moving the city to a water supply that turned out to be unsafe.

But on another level, it's also about something deeper: the vulnerabilities kids face when they grow up in poverty. They are more likely to have lower test scores, become teen mothers, and experience violent crime. And it's not just a lack of opportunity: A recent study found that the stresses of poverty actually stunt brain development.

Add to that lead poisoning — which also stunts growing brains — and that's what you have in Flint, Michigan.

There, about 62 percent of children live in poverty — among the highest, if not the highest, rate in US cities larger than 50,000 people.

Flint's raw child poverty rate is the highest for cities larger than 50,000 people, according to the American Community Survey's five-year estimates. The estimates' margins of error range from 4 to 10 percent, so we can't know if Flint definitely has the highest rate — but we can safely say it is among the worst.

Looking at the raw numbers, you can see that Flint is worse than Detroit, where 56 percent of children lived below the poverty line in 2014. It's worse than Camden at 52 percent, Birmingham at 49, Hartford at 46, St. Louis at 42, and so on.

In Flint, and many other cities, it's gotten worse in the past decade.

From 2005 to 2014, the child poverty rate has risen from less than 50 percent to around 60 percent. Again, a margin of error problem exists, but we can safely say that it's gone up a consequential amount. This is a volatile reflection of nationwide trends, where child poverty rates went up from 13.3 percent in 2005 to 15.5 percent in 2014.

Lead poisoning is also a racial issue

As my colleague German Lopez has reported, there are racial disparities in lead exposure. Nationally, the data shows that black children ages 1 to 5 were twice as likely as white children to be poisoned by lead from 2007 to 2010.

And black people tend to live in poorer neighborhoods, he writes, because "centuries of discriminatory and oppressive policies have pushed black people into poor towns and cities that can't afford the lead abatement programs that wealthier places can."

Flint has among the highest black populations of any city in Michigan, at about 57 percent.

They never had a fair shot, and then this

It's easy to think of the term "poverty level" as just a defined formula, because, well, it is. It's an income threshold that often helps determine who is eligible for social services, like Medicaid and food stamps. For a family of three in 2014, it was $19,790.

But it often describes a situation that puts children in severely vulnerable and inequitable situations.

They are moving around a lot. They are dealing with parents who constantly stress about finances. They are worrying about food. And it doesn't end there: In addition to stunted brain development, studies have shown that children who grow up in poverty are much more likely to have chronic health issues like diabetes, asthma, and hearing problems.

The lead poisoning in Flint is a visceral example of what happens to children when government fails these communities. By living in poverty, these children were already in a vulnerable position — not just now, but for decades to come. Having poison coming out of their faucets is perhaps the most egregious example of how they never had a fair shot.