Rethinking Tiebout: The Contribution of Political Fragmentation and Racial/Economic Segregation to the Flint Water Crisis
The water crisis that has embroiled Flint, Michigan, since 2014 is often explained via the proximate causes of government oversight and punitive emergency management. While these were critical elements in the decision to switch the city's water source, many other forces helped precipitate the crisis. One such force has been an enduring support for Charles Tiebout's model of interlocal competition, through which a region is presumed stronger when fragmented, independent municipalities compete
... residents and investment. However, the Tiebout model fails to account for spillover effects, particularly regarding questions of social and regional equity. In this sense, the fragmentation of the Flint metropolitan region-supported through a variety of housing and land use policies over many decades-created the conditions through which suburbs were absolved of responsibility for Flint's decades-long economic crisis. Because of the Tiebout model's inability to address imbalances in population shifts arising from disparities in municipal services, Flint's more affluent suburbs continued to prosper, while Flint grew poorer and experienced infrastructure decline. Underlying this pattern of inequality has been a long history of racial segregation and massive deindustrialization, which concentrated the region's black population in the economically depressed central city. The Flint Water Crisis is thus a classic example of an environmental injustice, as policies were set in motion, which led to the creation of a politically separate and majority-black municipality with concentrated poverty, while nearby municipalities-most of them overwhelmingly white-accepted little responsibility for the legacy costs created by the region's starkly uneven patterns of metropolitan development.