Investing in infrastructure … just words until you make the human connection

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I want to share with you a highly personal story about the death of my daughter Rachel in May of 2015 when the train she was riding from Philadelphia to New York derailed. It derailed because Amtrak (funded in part by our federal tax dollars) hadn’t yet installed a proven emergency safety braking system.

This widely recognized technology would have stopped the train that was careening uncontrollably at high speed down the track. The technology to stop this accident from happening has been around for years. It just wasn’t installed. As a result, Rachel and seven others lost their lives needlessly. Eight people died who had dreams and families and futures. They didn’t have to die. It didn’t have to happen. My 4-year-old grandson would still have his mommy if someone had “invested in infrastructure.”

So why am I talking about this now so publicly? Because Michigan’s lack of investment in our state’s infrastructure in recent years is putting people’s lives at risk, from a giant sinkhole damaging homes in Fraser to toxic water endangering an entire community in Flint.

And instead of offering solutions and increasing investment, some lawmakers want to undermine state services and infrastructure even more. There are proposals in Lansing right now to eliminate or reduce the state income tax. I’ve been around Lansing and budgets for long enough to know that when taxes are cut it means cuts to schools, services, public safety and, yes, infrastructure—pipes carrying water to our homes, workplaces and hospitals; roads and bridges that are supposed to carry us safely to school and work and back home at the end of the day; school buildings that house our children for more than seven hours a day and more.

And bad things can and will happen unless we stop this thinking that all taxes are bad. Taxes protect our very lives, our children and our communities. They are the price for living in a democratic society where we must share the responsibility of people looking out for their neighbors, their neighbors’ children and parents.

We know what happened in Flint when a decision to save money by switching the city’s water source, and another appalling decision to save a few thousand dollars by not treating the pipes with a chemical to prevent lead from leaching into the water, exposed thousands, mostly kids and seniors, to toxic lead. The damage of these decisions will be felt for decades to come.

We know what happened in Flint when state health officials failed to test Flint’s water for Legionella or heed warnings of an outbreak as Legionnaires’ disease took the lives of a dozen people and sickened nearly 100, and pneumonia killed 177 Genesee County residents in 2014 and 2015.

And we know that what happened in Flint could happen again anywhere in Michigan and that other failing infrastructure is jeopardizing residents as we speak.

Please join me in letting our Legislature know that we can’t cut our way to prosperity—that our tax decisions can indeed be life-and-death decisions. I implore our elected officials to put a human context to their actions moving forward because there are real people behind all those budget numbers and decisions. Perhaps my daughter’s tragic death will not have been in vain if positive change can come as a result. Whether it’s at the state or federal level, government’s deadly mistakes must be resolved not repeated. Please tell your lawmakers to be responsible and think of the human beings that are behind their decisions. Tell them not to cut taxes or state services and instead use those dollars to invest in the very things that will provide a safer, better life for us all.

— Gilda Z. Jacobs

A Flint resident’s perspective

My name is Katrina Khouri and I recently worked as the League’s Kids Count Project Intern. I am a Flint native—born, raised and proud to still live in a great city among folks who are some of the kindest, most resilient and generous I know. (more…)

A poison all around us: The threat of lead in Michigan

cities in crisis and KC logos

pdficonResidents of the city of Flint, including estimates of up to 9,000 kids, have been exposed to dangerous lead that leached from outdated pipes into the drinking water in their homes, schools and businesses. Given the harmful, lifelong effects of lead exposure, the problems and needs of the community of Flint and its people—especially kids—will last for decades to come. Unfortunately, while the breadth of lead exposure and government’s responsibility are unique to Flint, lead poisoning is not.

girl drinking waterMichigan children around the state have been exposed to lead through old lead-based paint and lead dust in older homes as well as contaminated soil and old infrastructure with lead. Because of this, the problem persists predominantly among impoverished areas of Michigan and children of color.

Lead Toxicity’s Lasting Effects

The effects of lead exposure at any level are irreversible and prevention is paramount. Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in a body. It interferes with functions of positive minerals in the body, such as, iron, calcium and zinc, which are vital to the healthy development of a person’s bones, organs, brain and nervous system. Toddlers are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their high levels of absorption, their rapid development and their hand-to-mouth behavior that results in them ingesting lead.1

Extensive research has shown that even small levels of lead exposure in young children and developing fetuses impacts cognitive development and is linked to lower IQ, academic performance, decision-making and impulse control. Not only is the health and well-being of the child forever changed with lead exposure, but our entire society is compromised. Childhood lead exposure costs Michigan $330 million a year in decreased lifetime earnings and increased costs for medical care, crime and incarceration, and special education.2

Poverty Poses A Greater Risk

A national survey found that children at highest risk for having elevated blood lead levels are those living in metropolitan areas and in housing built before 1946, from low-income families, and of African-American and Hispanic origin.3 This is primarily due to their exposure to lead-based paint, soil contaminated from past use of lead in gasoline and dated infrastructure delivering drinking water, the cause of widespread water contamination in Flint where 66.5% of children under 5 years of age live below the poverty line.4 Low-income children are also more likely to be undernourished with iron- and calcium-deficient diets, making them more susceptible to lead poisoning because their bodies absorb more lead when other nutrients are lacking.

By the Numbers in Michigan

In 2014, 38% of 1- to 2-year-olds in Michigan were tested for lead statewide and 52% were tested in fourteen target communities where children are at higher risk of lead poisoning. The city of Detroit had nearly 31% of the entire state’s confirmed and unconfirmed5 cases of lead poisoning in 2014 followed by Grand Rapids with 9%. Highland Park, where poverty is rife at 48% living below the federal poverty threshold, 19.7% of toddlers tested had an elevated blood lead level of 5 ug/dl6, both confirmed and unconfirmed tests.

Percentage of lead poisoning and poverty ratesIn 2013, prior to the lead-contaminated drinking water that flowed in Flint, the city was already one of Michigan’s high-risk lead areas—of the 44% of 1- to 2-year-olds tested, 4.4% tested positive for elevated blood levels by confirmed and unconfirmed tests. According to data from Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Hurley Medical Center, the percentage of children younger than 5 with elevated lead levels in Flint nearly doubled in 2014 and 2015. In city wards with the highest levels of lead in water, the levels more than tripled.

Moving Forward

While lead poisoning cannot be reversed, its effects can be counteracted and kids can still lead healthy, successful lives. Recently, the Legislature approved a $28 million budget supplemental bill to deal with the effects of the Flint crisis, but government must continue to assess the situation in Flint and appropriate additional funds for decades to come.

The kids of Flint that have been poisoned—and the assumption should be that they all have been exposed—should be monitored closely while wraparound education, nutrition and health services are provided. These supports must also stay with these kids wherever they end up living. Intervention must be funded through Early On, Head Start, home visitation programs, school nurses, the Children’s Healthcare Access Program (CHAP), Pathways for Potential, extension of Women, Infants, and Children benefits to age 10 with expansion of locations and full-time employees, as well as behavioral health and developmental services for children with high blood levels.  Michigan must also increase funding for the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program to address the ongoing threat of lead poisoning in other low-income communities.


  1. World Health Organization. Childhood Lead Poisoning. 2010; Available at:
  2. Tina Reynolds. Flint crisis shows need for further investment in statewide lead programs, advocates say. Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Housing (MIALSH). Nov. 9, 2015. Available at:
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Lead Exposure in Young Children: A Housing-Based Approach to Primary Prevention of Lead Poisoning – Recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. Oct. 2004. Available at:
  4. U.S. Census. Table DP03. 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.
  5. Confirmed elevated BLL greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL: A child with one venous blood specimen greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL, or two capillary blood specimens greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL drawn within 12 weeks of each other. Unconfirmed elevated BLL greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL: A single capillary blood lead test greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL, or two capillary tests greater than or equal to 5 ug/dL drawn more than 12 weeks apart. Available at:
  6. Ug/dL: Micrograms per deciliter, the reference point for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define elevated blood lead levels.