Flint Residents' Broken Faith: 'The People We Trusted Failed Us' State and city officials knew about problems with Flint's water even as they encouraged people to keep using it. Locals are disillusioned, and angry, and rebuilding that trust will be challenging.
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Flint Residents' Broken Faith: 'The People We Trusted Failed Us'

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Flint Residents' Broken Faith: 'The People We Trusted Failed Us'

Flint Residents' Broken Faith: 'The People We Trusted Failed Us'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Flint, Mich., it could take months or years to rebuild the water system that poisoned people with lead. It could take even longer to rebuild something more abstract - trust between citizens and their government.

ROXANNE ADAIR: So many of us here have lost faith and trust in what anyone has told us.

SHAPIRO: Roxanne Adair is a vendor at the farmers' market in Flint. When I was there recently, she told me this goes deeper than water.

ADAIR: Because they told us that it was safe to drink for two years when it clearly wasn't.

SHAPIRO: The fundamental relationship between people and their elected leaders has been damaged. E-mails show that government officials knew about problems with Flint's water, even while they publicly encouraged people to keep drinking from the tap. Today, the mayor is in Washington, talking to a House panel about possible solutions to Flint's water problems. And the Michigan governor's budget includes almost $200 million dedicated to Flint next year. But people here feel disillusioned, and it's hard to see how that gets fixed. Sixty-one-year-old Sandra Westin was born and raised here, a native Flintstone, as they say.

SANDRA WESTIN: We are Flintstones, and we are a strong group, a talented group of people from this area, from Genesee County. But it makes me sad that the people we trusted failed us. It's not us who failed them. They failed us.

SHAPIRO: Many people here compare the Flint situation to the notorious Tuskegee experiments, when the government lied to black men with syphilis for decades, watching them suffer without offering a cure.

WESTIN: So yeah, it does remind me. We are the expendables.

SHAPIRO: Wow, that's a powerful, painful thing to hear.

WESTIN: But it feels like it. We are expendable.

SHAPIRO: Westin believes the Flint situation was only allowed to happen because this is a poor, majority black city. The relationship between Flintstones and their government is an especially acute case of what is happening all over the country. According to the Pew Research Center, only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government all or most of the time. That's close to a record low. This mistrust and anger comes out in the presidential race every day. And if that's how the whole country feels, you can imagine how much stronger the feeling is here in Flint.

KEYSA SMITH: I mean, if you want to describe it, you can also describe it as genocide to me because, I mean, if you know you're poisoning people - you know you're poisoning people, that doesn't make sense to me at all.

SHAPIRO: Thirty-six-year-old Keysa Smith isn't sure how that gets fixed.

SMITH: I don't know how you rebuild it because trust is hard to rebuild after it's been broken. And that's in anything - relationships, everything. So it's going to be hard.

BRIAN CALLEY: Of course people are skeptical. Of course people have lost trust in experts and government.

SHAPIRO: This is Michigan's Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, one of the men hoping to rebuild that trust. While I was in Flint, he held a press conference outside in the snow. He said some of the tests are coming back showing less lead in the tap water. Also, he said, the water should be safe to bathe in. So I asked him, how can you expect anyone in Flint to believe you after what they've been through?

CALLEY: I can, of course, understand the skeptical nature that people have with respect to - with respect to advice that is given. So over the course of time, I think that we need to do - we need to go the extra mile, ask the extra questions, bring in extra people to verify what we're being told.

SHAPIRO: And the government is bringing in outsiders who have more credibility, like the researcher from Virginia Tech who first called attention to the lead problem, and Laura Sullivan, a water expert from Kettering University in Flint. She told me, now that she's working with the government, it is a daily fight to earn people's faith.

LAURA SULLIVAN: You know, by association, there are times when the people that I've standing with and fighting with say, oh, wow, OK, you know what? She's worked with Snyder now; you know, maybe we can't trust her anymore.

SHAPIRO: Snyder is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Many people in Flint told me they see him as the villain in this story.

SULLIVAN: So it's not - it's not I earned trust and now I got it. It's, like, every day reminding the people that I care about that they can still trust me. And yeah, I went into the room, and I shook his hand because that's the only way to move forward.

SHAPIRO: Some people in Flint told me they might begin to trust their government again once new people are in charge. But others said, no, this is not the kind of damage where you can just replace the pipes and say the problem is fixed.

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