Lead and the Work of Inequality

The recent water crisis in Flint has highlighted the enormous challenges faced by marginalized populations, especially in cities still trying to recover from our changing economy. Basic life opportunities escape the grasp of those with limited means, voice, and mobility. Our expectations of government’s ability to solve inequalities has dwindled, in part, because our policy- and decision-making have become more politicized and polarized. And while our society is finding more creative ways to effect change, units of government are limited in what they can do. Market forces rarely respond favorably to those struggling to escape the gravity of poverty because their resources do not provide the ability to launch and maintain solutions. This leaves an important moral question: Does philanthropy step in where other sectors have traditionally led to serve those in need? We believe the answer is yes, but it requires a clear understanding of philanthropy’s role, capabilities, and the need for collaboration.

"Do we believe that there is equal economic opportunity out there in the real world, right now, for each and every one of these groups? If we believed in the tooth fairy, if we believed in the Easter Bunny, we might well believe that." - William Weld.

William Weld’s point illustrates the core issue for communities struggling to overcome their challenges: various populations in our society have either greater or lesser access to opportunities for a variety of reasons. We are witnessing this variation in opportunity access today as we all remain focused on the Flint water crisis and the impact of lead poisoning in the city’s water supply.

Flint is not an outlier and other cities should take note that their communities are suffering similar failures. Other Michigan cities, including Grand Rapids, have overall higher rates of lead poisoning and not just from water. Lead contamination can occur through paint, soil and other sources. According to a 2014 report of the Center of Disease Control, 12 states reported child blood lead level rates higher than Flint's current levels (4-6%). In Michigan, Adrian reported a rate of 12 percent, and 10 Detroit ZIP codes had rates over 10 percent. And before we think of this as only a Great Lakes State issue, we should note that the city of Rochester, New York, reported a rate of 7.4 percent and in New Jersey, 11 cities and two counties reported higher blood lead level rates than Flint. Allentown, Pennsylvania had an overwhelming rate of 23% of their children suffering staggering high levels of lead poisoning. In a nation that leads the world in so many prosperity measures, third-world problems like clean water and lead-free environments would seem a thing of our past – but they are our current reality. These are "third-world" issues hidden within our "first world" economy. They are also stark evidence of what inequality (lack of mobility, scarce resources, unhealthy environmental conditions, failing education systems) looks like in our communities.

"We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems." - Lee Iacocca.

The recently testimony on the Hill regarding the Flint water crisis demonstrates that there will be a great deal of energy spend by government exploring the failure of government at all levels. At the same time, these same units of government have to find ways to solve this problem including changing regulations, holding actors accountable, and garnering the financial resources needed to fix the City’s crumbling infrastructure. At the same time Flint does provide us a glimpse into the leadership role philanthropy can play in helping to address the unequal access to clean and safe water for marginalized populations.

As the EPA and the Michigan DEQ were working to figure out what they needed to do to address the lead in Flint’s water, philanthropy was working to develop the responses that would be needed in the short- and long-term. Local foundations and nonprofits were the immediate catalysts for relief solutions by staging bottled water distribution and setting up a fund for the long-term health and education needs of the children affected by the water contamination. The C.S. Mott Foundation provided $4 million to help the city switch back to the Detroit water system while the United Way collected funds to provided bottled water through the local food pantry and distributed filters and testing kits for local residents. The Community Foundation of Greater Flint launched an endowment campaign and fund to support the decades of health and other challenges future generations will face.

Philanthropy can help educate decision makers and the general public on the issues, solutions, and the need for policy changes and resources. Michigan Public Radio and its national nonprofit partner, NPR reported that pockets of undocumented immigrants in Flint were not receiving the information or resources they needed to protect their children from lead poisoning because many were taught not to answer the door when government officials approach their homes. Trusted local nonprofits were engaged to reach out to these communities to help ensure that knew of the water crisis and where to go to get water and other resources.

There are a myriad of other roles philanthropy can play including setting the table for cross-sector collaboration, supporting grassroots advocacy efforts to promote positive policy changes, and opening dialogues with community members and policy makers so that those will limited access can have a stronger voice in the policies that impact their lives.

With all these opportunities for philanthropy, we might conclude that the possibilities are endless. But embracing that conclusion would be a mistake. Philanthropy’s role is limited and understanding those limitations is paramount.

Government's responsibility is to garner the resources and set policies to provide basic quality services to all our children and families. The federal, state and local governments have to function and lead effectively. These institutions are at the center of ensuring the health and effectiveness of our republic. Philanthropy is not elected and accountability for the work of our organizations is not governed in the same way as those elected by the people nor would we want to be that way.

Philanthropy cannot operate at the same scale as government. Scaling solutions must reside in the government or in other private sector venues. The "Social Compact" which has existed for decades calls for the public sector to scale new and innovative solutions that philanthropy and the private markets helped to develop. There has been a shift in thinking that now government incubates what philanthropy can scale and the numbers don't add up. If all the philanthropic resources (corpus and all) were lumped in a pot and delivered to the state of Michigan use for its functions, Michigan would go broke in 6 months.

One of the core challenges some experience is that market forces don’t work in their favor. For the more fortunate, they can use markets to create solutions for a host of challenges. For the poor and underserved it is difficult to sustain markets that provide food, shelter, and economic opportunities. While the social sector (a place philanthropy thrives) can begin to develop concepts and models for scalable market solutions, the philanthropic sector cannot garner the resources, products or services, markets that for-profit entities can to scale remedy to inequality.

Finally, it is important that we understand that the social compact is just that -- an agreement that identifies our respective roles and responsibilities and helps to create safe boundaries for our work. As more and more philanthropic institutions engage in what has been traditionally the role of government, it becomes ever more important that there is no confusion about who can and should do what. Today we see foundations and nonprofits being engaged in municipal bankruptcies, mass transit, public education, and in the case of Flint, basic infrastructure. And while we all agree that philanthropy can play a catalytic role, we cannot be the sustaining actors.

While the Flint Water Crisis seems overwhelming and somewhat distant to the life experiences of many, no community is immune to these types of catastrophic failures. To ensure communities can prevent and recover from these disasters (whether man-made or products of nature), it is important to understand the important roles our various sectors--government, commerce, and philanthropy--can play and practice collaboration toward common solutions. It is the only way we will address inequality in the long run.

This blog was cowritten by Diana Sieger, President of Grand Rapids Community Foundation, who is also a board member of the Council on Foundations and Kyle Caldwell the Executive Director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University and a former program director with the C.S. Mott Foundation.