The Miss America Organization has had a rollercoaster of a year, thanks in part to its decision to respond to the cultural shift we’ve seen. But from the leadership changes to new branding to the elimination of the swimsuit competition, one shift in particular could end making a greater difference than most.
After announcing the organization would no longer “judge candidates on outward appearance,” the Miss America Organization made it clear it would instead evolve and give candidates the opportunity to advocate for their social initiatives and demonstrate how they are uniquely qualified for the job. The candidate for Michigan listened closely, latching on to the opportunity to send out a warning to her state’s officials.
During the live telecast of “Miss America 2.0” this past weekend, as candidates introduced themselves by stating their academic and philanthropic achievements instead of “fun facts” about their home state, the young Michigan native chose to take a more socially conscious stance during her onstage introduction.
“From a state with 84 percent of the U.S. freshwater but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma,” she said.
Her decision to stand against a powerful government apparatus that’s been drowning the people of her home state in despair for decades may seem out of place to some, but the reality is that no matter how often we talk about Flint, we fail to look at the crisis and see its real culprits.
So when Sioma told the audience her fellow Michiganders don’t have water to drink, she made a poignant comment about a government willing to let residents die because they act outside of the market system, in a realm where individuals respond only to perverse incentives.
To understand why her message is so important, we must first understand how the Flint water crisis came to be.
When Flint’s Water Problems Began
The city had gone through two decades of unemployment and crime worsened by an increasingly elderly workforce and crumbling tax base. As a result, Flint was running a deficit of about $20 million by 2011, forcing Michigan state authorities to take over.
In 2013, Michigan officials, as well as the Flint city council, decided to shift the city’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the then-newly minted Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), which was not supposed to start running until 2016.
By June 2013, they decided to hire an engineering firm to put Flint’s water plant into operation until the KWA was officially launched. The decision was signed by the Michigan-appointed emergency manager, Ed Kurtz.
But before the shift, Flint’s water came from Detroit and it was treated with phosphates before making it to people’s homes. After officials started using water from Flint’s plan, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) did not require the plant to continue with the treatment, perhaps under pressure because of the city’s financial situation.
Following the shift, Kurtz imposed a 25 percent water and sewer rate increase to raise the city’s revenue stream. So by 2014, Flint’s families were paying $864 a year for water, double what the average American household pays. But despite the raise, the money was not used to fund water treatment. Instead, Kurtz was using it to cover the city’s growing debt.
Ignoring the Flint river’s corrosive water as well as the toxic lead found in the city’s decaying water network, which they knew about long the first report was announced, they went on with their plans, offering residents water that simply wasn’t safe for consumption.
By Aug. 2014, the city was forced to announce fecal coliform bacterium had been detected in the city’s water supply, which followed the first reports of disease linked to the city’s water.
Between June 2014 and Nov. 2015, 10 deaths had been reported, as well as 87 cases of Legionnaires’ disease. In addition, fetal deaths had increased 58 percent also thanks to the contaminated water.
According to Miguel Del Toral, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional groundwater regulations manager and whistleblower, he told state officials about the danger associated with Flint’s water in 2015 and yet, nothing was done.
In a recent appearance before the court, Del Toral said he contacted DEQ officials in an April 25, 2015 email that the high levels of lead in Flint’s water were concerning.
“Given the very high lead levels found at one home and the pre-flushing happening at Flint, I’m worried that the whole town may have much higher lead levels than the compliance results indicated,” he then wrote. Despite raising these concerns, the whistleblower said, state officials contested whether the city should resume its water treatment operations. As a result, people were killed.
Now, prosecutors are looking into pursuing involuntary manslaughter charges against at least two DEQ officials, as well as other charges against others.
Flint’s Problems Illustrate The Evils Of Government Mismanagement
While many news outlets and talking heads accused the market of being behind the Flint crisis, once the situation is reviewed it becomes clear that if Kurtz had run the city of Flint as a business, consumers would be his main concern, not the results the state expected.
If Flint was a company, its fiduciary requirements would have forced Flint officials to find a solution to the revenue problem long before the crisis, as companies operate with profit in mind. As such, the water problem wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Still, even if the hypothetical Flint company had ignored the issues and executives had been negligent, the victims would be better off today as they would be able to seek compensation in a court of law.
Flint and Michigan state officials thought $36,500 a year to treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosion agents was too high of a price. So instead, they chose to put lives in jeopardy. If a company had done the same, it would have been held liable in court and driven to bankruptcy having to pay millions to its victims.
Because government is to blame for this horrific display of disregard for human life, victims continue to suffer. And it’s precisely because most residents of Michigan remain in the dark as to how they can fix this issue that Sioma’s stance surges as an important warning.
When the Miss America pageant calls out her government for its blatant failures, it means that the heart of America is tired of the excuses.
If Michigan and its people manage to hear the warning and act accordingly, their eyes and hearts should soon turn to a better, more human approach to their water problem, and let the market find a way to better serve them.