The Jackson Water Crisis Is a Crisis of Leadership

The water system failure is a crisis, but the failure of our leaders to build the necessary supports and systems that families need to survive has turned it into a catastrophe.

Members of the Mississippi National Guard hand out bottled water at Thomas Cardozo Middle School in response to the water crisis on Sept. 1, 2022 in Jackson. The city has been experiencing days without reliable water service after river flooding caused the main treatment facility to fail. (Brad Vest / Getty Images)

I spoke with Tameka on Tuesday morning. She had learned at 5:00 p.m. on Monday evening that her children’s school would be switched to virtual learning indefinitely due to the low water pressure the entire city of Jackson, Miss., was experiencing. As her own water started to go out, she watched conflicting news reports and messaging about whether the little water she had left would be safe to bathe in or if there would be enough water to flush toilets. Some health officials said you could still at least brush your teeth or wash your dishes with it after boiling for several minutes. Others claimed it might just be raw sewage. As the sole caretaker for three girls between the ages of 5 and 13, who had already been enduring over a month under a boil water notice, she felt frustrated, scared and confused.

Her job told her that she could work from home initially. But at about 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a member of her company leadership ordered her into the office immediately. Now Tameka was forced with a decision: Should she leave her kids at home without a babysitter, risking their safety and learning and fearing a possible report to Child Protective Services? Or lose her job and not have enough money to feed her kids and take care of their housing?

It is an impossible choice to make in any circumstance. It is even harder when you have no idea how long your kids will be out of school, when you will have access to clean drinking water again, and amidst conflicting messages from state and city leaders.

As I continued to talk to families that morning about the shortage of water and the ripple effects in their lives, I heard about more impossible choices Jackson residents were being forced to make.

Do I spend gas and time trying to wait in line for three hours to get a couple cases of water for my home, or do I hope what I have is enough to get me through?

Do I pay for a Lyft to get to my child’s school to pick up meals and devices for virtual learning or does he miss out on learning today and we will try to stretch out the food we have here?

Do I take the money I had saved for rent and pay the Comcast bill instead, so we have Internet access for virtual learning, or do I let me kids miss a few days of school and hope they will be back in person sooner rather than later? 

As the water crisis in Jackson has continued to unfold, a lot has been written about the state of our infrastructure, the political power plays, and the infighting between the state and the city that have brought us to this point. These are all important discussions, and I’m grateful many of these issues are receiving serious attention by local, state and federal agencies. But these discussions have notably left out how this crisis is daily playing out for those in the city with the fewest resources at their disposal and the impossible choices that they are now being forced to make around school, food, work and other necessities beyond just water usage.

The failure of our water system is the product of years of neglect and systematic disinvestment from a majority Black city, but it is also emblematic of the larger disregard and negligence that our leaders have shown towards all residents in Mississippi. We have had the opportunity, particularly during the pandemic with additional sources and types of funding, to build a new and more robust social safety net system that centered the needs of families and would have prevented the same emergency situations we saw play out during the pandemic and past water system failures. But instead, favoring income tax cuts and pay raises for elected officials, we cut it up so much that when families found themselves knocked off the edge by a crisis, they have been left in a freefall.

The failure of our water system is the product of years of neglect and systematic disinvestment from a majority Black city, but it is also emblematic of the larger disregard and negligence that our leaders have shown towards all residents in Mississippi.

Cajania Brown and her son are both residents of Jackson, Miss. Brown is a member of the Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a guaranteed income in Jackson that gives $1,000 per month for 12 months to 100 families headed by Black women living in federally subsidized housing. (Sarah Stripp / Springboard to Opportunities)

In early August, our governor declared the end of the rental assistance program, known as RAMP, that had been set up with American Rescue Plan funds, returning over $100 million in rental assistance funds to the federal government, stating that there was a job for every Mississippian who wanted one and no one should need help paying rent. Mississippi proudly declared itself one of the first states to cut off additional federal unemployment aid during the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2021. Since early 2020, we have been uncovering the depths of misuse and embezzlement in a welfare scandal where state leaders misused at least $77 million in federal TANF funds that were intended to assist families in poverty, and legislative leaders have consistently blocked the expansion of Medicaid, even for postpartum mothers.

Many of our lawmakers operate with the misguided belief that a strong social safety net system generates dependency. But we know creating a baseline of support actually provides families with a sense of agency, allowing them to make the best decisions for their own lives and families—especially in a crisis. Just think, if Tameka knew there might be some option for rent support or TANF payments or even just paid leave from her job, she could have taken the day off to help transition her girls, plan for childcare, and get the water her family would need to at least get through the week. Yes, the water system failure is a crisis, but the failure of our leaders to build the necessary supports and systems that families need to survive has turned it into a catastrophe.

As our leaders work to mitigate the crisis that is at hand, I hope that for once, we will not see this as a one-off effort that is solved when water pressure is restored, and we are no longer in the national spotlight. The problems of our water systems did not just happen overnight and neither did the systemic dismantling of our social safety net system.

As we seek long-term solutions for our water, may we also be listening to the important stories and experiences of families trying to navigate in the chaos, and ensure we are also building out the long-term solutions they need so that they know they are supported and have what they need if another crisis hits.

Explore the stories of guaranteed income recipients in the Jackson-based Magnolia Mother’s Trust. In Front and Center, these mothers speak on their struggles, their children, their work, their relationships, and their dreams for the future, and how a federal guaranteed income program could change their lives.

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Sarah Stripp is the managing director for Springboard To Opportunities, a nonprofit organization in Jackson, Miss., that works with residents in affordable housing reach their goals in school, work and life. In the fall of 2018, Springboard To Opportunities announced The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a new initiative that provides low-income, Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi $1,000 cash on a monthly basis, no strings attached, for 12 months straight.