January 22, 2021
New Orleans Recently, Social Policy was lucky enough to have fifty contributors offer ideas suggesting priorities for the new Biden administration. There were some amazing recommendations, and we’ll dig into more of them soon, but one comes to mind now as all sides in the warm glow of the inauguration are claiming they want to look for projects where there might be bipartisan agreement: infrastructure. Wait, I’m not through. I realize that some of these infrastructure proposals bring the hair up on the back of too many necks, where the tradeoff for more jobs can be questionable highways, industrial canals, bridges to nowhere, and all manner of so-called “shovel ready” projects that are less about repair and more about what a friend once called “edifice complexes.” Richard Diaz, an organizer and activist in Milwaukee, had a short and sweet contribution that was spot on when it comes to infrastructure. He called for governmental replacement of lead service lines or what they call whips in New Orleans.
Do we need to make this happen? Ask the former governor and other officials in Michigan now under criminal indictment for not acting to stop the poisoning of water in Flint, Michigan. In fact, ask mayors and governors all across the country who are struggling with this problem because of cost. Different cities have tried to craft fixes here. Some cities have stepped up to the job, but on timelines that stretch out for decades. Some states, Louisiana for one, have made it state law to try and force residents to pay for replacing lead prices that cities and states often mandated, which was also the situation in Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin replaced all of their lines at their own cost, but they are the heroic exception.
As cities are drowning in debt with tax losses during the pandemic, it’s hard to pretend they can or will step up to this problem on their own, despite the scientific and public health consensus that any lead being swallowed, especially by children, is destructive. Look, the price is huge, $10 billion, but how large is that really, when we talk about several trillion here and there for stimulus. Estimates for infrastructure projects nationally are trillions as well. Put all that together and $10 billion isn’t chump, but it seems reasonable, and, even better, solves a huge, critical problem, and does so in way that most politicians should love, by fixing something that voters can see in almost every city in the country, and even more powerfully, does so in their front yards.
Seen all together, getting rid of lead service lines almost seems like a no-brainer, no matter the cost.