When photographer Matt Black enters an impoverished city to begin capturing its essence, he says it feels like coming home.
"I feel a really strong connection to these places," he said. "It’s really kind of an outgrowth of the place where I grew up, where I live: in the central valley of California, where poverty is always present."
Black, 45, has been capturing images of the nation’s poor for more than 20 years. He has profiled over 100 cities across 39 states as part of an ongoing project he calls "The Geography of Poverty."
He deliberately chooses communities in which one in five people live in poverty.
“It’s not an arbitrary line,” he said. “It’s a thing that sociologists and others use that study poverty, because once you reach that threshold, poverty begins to affect the entire community -- everything from health care to schools. It’s not just about the poor side of town.”
Black added: “I’m making a unified portrait of this part of America that I feel doesn’t ever really get talked about or focused on as a distinct place. And yet that’s exactly what I feel like it is.”
He first visited Flint, Michigan, last year, before their water crisis became national news.
“The water problem was going on; it just wasn’t as clear how widespread it was at that time,” he said. He spent about a week there, gathering images that told the story of how Flint evolved from being an industrial powerhouse to being one of the poorest communities in the country.
“I connected with the place in terms of the history, the really tremendous crash,” Black said. “What happens when you lose 80,000 jobs in one shot?”
When General Motors opened its doors in 1908, Flint was a sleepy city of 38,000. By the time the ‘60s rolled around, the population had grown to 196,000. GM employed more than 82,000 of them.
Flint’s downturn began in the ‘80s as GM downsized. Today, Flint’s population has fallen below 99,000 and more than 46% of residents live below the poverty line. The median household income in Flint is a mere $24,000. The rest of Michigan averages $49,000.
As a cost-cutting measure, city officials switched water sources in April 2014 from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The switch was supposed to be a two-year stop gap while a new pipeline to Lake Huron was built by the city.
“When he came out, he wasn’t breathing. ... The water caused my baby to almost die.”Flint resident Tiantha Williams
By August of that year, the city issued a boil water advisory, finding fecal coliform bacteria in the water supply. Two months later, the GM plant in Flint stopped using the water due to high levels of chlorine that might corrode engine parts.
By early 2015, children began suffering from rashes and “mysterious illnesses,” while levels of lead in drinking water reached dangerous proportions. One resident’s home tested at 397 parts per billion (ppb); the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level is 15 ppb.
Within a few months, suspicions were confirmed: the city had not been treating the incoming Flint River water with anti-corrosives, even though the river had been found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron.
The corrosive water was eating away at the city’s aging lead water pipe lines, the ones that fed homes. As a result, enormous amounts of lead were leaching into the city’s water, into the homes of every man, woman and child.
There is no safe level of lead. In children, even levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter can damage IQ, academic achievement and increase behavioral problems. Double that, and it can delay puberty, reduce growth and affect hearing. In pregnant women, lead exposure can limit fetal growth. In everyone, lead exposure can damage kidneys, nerves and the heart.
As the extent of the damage to Flint and its residents became more and more clear, Black was drawn back to the city. This time, he followed the water to tell Flint’s story.
“I went to places where people having water trouble might go,” he said. “Distribution centers where people pick up water is where I started first. Then I went to churches, and I also reconnected with some folks that I had met before.”
What he found went beyond poverty. He found betrayal at a deeper level than just poor housing conditions.
“These people were lied to,” Black said.
“The circumstances and the background of this betrayal are unique. It’s not simply because people had lead pipes in their house or lead paint on the wall.”
He went on, his voice rising with passion.
“It was a result of decisions by administrators who are supposed to know what they’re doing -- conscious decisions to change the source of the water and to inadequately treat the water. So, yes, it’s neglect. But it’s not passive neglect. It was neglect that was brought about by action.”
These were actions, Black said, that violated the fundamental needs and rights of an entire city. A city that wouldn’t have been treated in that manner if it weren’t desperately poor.
“Poverty to me is much more than about economics, it’s about power, it’s about social power, who gets their needs taken care of and who doesn’t...
“It’s yet another manifestation of being told that you don’t count and you are not important. It’s just about as vivid and about as concrete and about as harmful an example of it you could possibly think of.”