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Jackson, Mississippi, and America’s Infrastructure Crisis

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for president, he called government “the problem” and not the solution to any problem he could think of. He probably wasn’t referring to the government that paves the roads, picks up the garbage, or provides your home with drinking water. That government provided essential services we all rely on. Its absence would certainly be a problem. But Reagan’s anti-government and anti-tax mantra remains with us and has had the impact of defunding many of the basic services that government provides.

The biggest impact of an undertaxed America has not been the failure to fund the daily costs of government service, although that has happened, it has been the failure to invest in physical infrastructure and the long-term capital projects that cost billions of dollars and enable transportation, water, waste, and sewage systems to operate. These projects are not completed in a single election cycle and require political courage to advocate. As we well know, political courage and foresight are in short supply these days. We are seeing the impact of this disinvestment in real time in Jackson, Mississippi, where the public water system has collapsed. Jackson is where selfish, self-centered anti-tax ideology combines with Republican racism to deny a city of 180,000 mostly African-American citizens a system of public water.

In the New York Times last week, Rick Rojas reported that:

“More than 150,000 people in Mississippi’s capital were without access to safe drinking water on Tuesday, forcing officials to tackle what they described as the “massively complicated task” of distributing bottled water and devising a plan to restore service without a firm sense of how long that would take. The water system in Jackson, the state’s largest city, has been in crisis for years, hobbled by aging and inadequate infrastructure and, many in the city argue, a failure to devote sufficient resources to fix it.”

We’ve seen lead in the water supply in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, and to address these issues, Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill includes a great deal of funding for fixing water systems. About $15 billion is earmarked over the next ten years for lead pipe replacement, including $3 billion in fiscal 2023. It will take years for that money to be spent, and to help places like Jackson, that money must be allocated by states and sent to the local governments who run America’s water systems. Mississippi has a way of reserving infrastructure funding for white folks and denying it to anyone who isn’t white. Right now, the state is sitting on over $2 billion of federal stimulus money but hasn’t seen fit to send any of it to Jackson to fix its collapsing water system. As Rojas observed:

“Jackson might be the seat of power for the state government, yet many in the city contend that the water system is a glaring example of how the community has been starved of investment and attention. For decades, the city’s population has been shrinking, an exodus propelled in large part by the flight of white residents—along with their tax dollars—to surrounding affluent suburbs where, by and large, the water on Tuesday was flowing just fine.”

Mississippi’s governor now seems to recognize that a problem exists- even if it’s just the problem of being embarrassed by a state capital that seems to reside in a developing nation, rather than in the United States of America. The Washington Post’s Emmanuel Felton recently reported that:

“Gov. Tate Reeves (R) declared Jackson’s ongoing water crisis an “immediate health threat.” …On Thursday, state officials announced that 108 tractor-trailers loaded with water were on their way to Jackson for all of the residents. Reeves deployed 600 Mississippi National Guard troops to seven water distribution sites across the state capital. The governor said at least one water treatment pump was expected to be repaired early next week, although it was not clear when water service would be restored citywide.”

Perhaps the crisis in Jackson is the point at which, even among extreme ideologues, human decency displaces political power games. The governor’s emergency declaration and President Biden’s disaster declaration have provided resources to deal with the short-term emergency. But Mississippi and the nation must deal with over half a century of disinvestment. The water crisis is not limited to Mississippi but is a national crisis. According to Berkeley Professor David Sedlak:

“Due to our complacency, only a serious crisis that could leave people without access to tap water is likely to free up the financial resources needed to bring water infrastructure—which in many places still includes pipes from the 1800s—into the 21st century. Absent an emergency, cash-strapped water utility managers will continue to deal with aging water systems by economizing on routine maintenance and deferring upgrades for as long as possible. This chronic funding shortage is so dire that the American Society of Civil Engineers has awarded the drinking water infrastructure of the United States grades of D-minus or D for over a decade.”

There are exceptions to this disinvestment. New York City took half a century and $6 billion to complete a third water tunnel to enable the city to repair its two older tunnels constructed a century ago. Both were leaking, and about a third of the water leaving New York City’s upstate reservoirs never made it to the city. The project was stalled until Mayor Mike Bloomberg became New York’s mayor; he prioritized tunnel construction and ensured funding was allocated toward it, even though only a part of the project was completed before he left office. He recognized that if one of the existing tunnels failed, many New Yorkers would go without water. Unlike the elected “leaders” in Mississippi, he recognized the urgency of the situation.

While New Yorkers don’t like their growing water bills, they pay them and are willing to elect leaders interested in investing resources to address long-term needs. Low-tax states like Florida, Texas, and, yes, Mississippi seem willing to kick the can down the road. There are a variety of explanations for the lack of support for funding to pay for long-term infrastructure needs. One is simply a mistrust of the government’s capacity to deliver value for the money. This is partially ideological and partially based on perceived experience. While the rate of management failure is far higher in the private sector than in the public sector, private bankruptcies are typically quiet deaths, while public failure is always front-page news. Many people are convinced that their tax dollars are wasted.

A second reason for low tax rates and disinvestment is simply selfishness and greed. Some people would rather keep the money in their own pocket to buy a big screen TV or stay at a fancy hotel. I think growing income inequality and the demise of the middle class have reinforced the tendency toward delegitimizing collective resources. Some people are simply too poor to afford to pay taxes to support infrastructure and others are so rich they feel they are immune to social forces and will figure out a way to privately obtain what they once received from public infrastructure. The fact is we are living off of the investments made by our grandparents and even great-grandparents, while we defer these infrastructure bills for our children to pay.

What we’ve seen in many places is that the tax dollars collected to provide collective resources are funneled into rich communities and denied to low-income areas. This is a foolish strategy with environmental infrastructure since rich and poor neighborhoods may be geographically close and pollutants from poor neighborhoods could contaminate rich ones. In a dynamic housing market, neighborhoods circulate, and last year’s poor neighborhood may now house the local gentry. We really are all in this together, and it is difficult to hide from the national problem of water infrastructure. Mississippi’s shameful treatment of the people living in Jackson is far from unique, as are collapsing water systems. The combination of climate-accelerated extreme weather events and infrastructure disinvestment ensures that there will be many more Jacksons in our future.

Editor’s note:  An upcoming Climate School event, guid=CAL-00bbdb7c-8243dfae-0182-45253e49-00001ca1events [[at]] columbia [[dot]] edu&recurrenceId=">Ensuring America’s Water Security, will propose solutions to the joint crisis of aging infrastructure and increasing climate extremes. Register here

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.