Lead poisoning is among the most important and overlooked national public health problems. Exposure to lead causes permanent brain damage, and half a million American children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning is linked to lower IQs, learning disabilities, and even criminal behavior. The connection between lead poisoning and crime is so strong that scholars have even linked the prevalence of leaded gasoline to the overall crime rate.
Even though lead paint was banned in 1978, the toxin is still present in three-quarters of homes built before the ban. Twenty years ago, Congress committed to addressing this problem by establishing the Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control. Since then, that office has partnered with states, cities, and the private sector to remove lead from over 200,000 homes. Sadly, sequestration is already taking a bite out of those successful lead removal programs.
Ending lead poisoning is one of the best investments we can make in our future. According to a 2009 study, “For every dollar spent on controlling lead hazards, $17–$221 would be returned in health benefits, increased IQ, higher lifetime earnings, tax revenue, reduced spending on special education, and reduced criminal activity.” Using the most conservative estimate of $17 in benefits for every dollar invested, the $6 million that sequestration already cut from lead removal programs will cost our country at least $102 million. The House Republican cut of $64 million below sequestration would cost over $1 billion.
In contrast with Rep. Ryan’s budget, the Senate budget calls for replacing sequestration with a balanced mix of tax increases and targeted spending cuts. That framework led to a bipartisan spending bill that restores full funding for lead removal. Six Republicans joined every Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to support that bill.
Meanwhile, the House bill that cuts lead removal, which funds housing and transportation programs, is an overall cut of 18 percent from the Senate version, hitting other critical programs as well. Other House spending bills will include deeper cuts, meaning that programs for health care, education, diplomacy, and the environment will fare even worse. There is one bill where the House spends more than the Senate: the bill funding the Department of Defense.
Both the House and Senate will consider their respective spending bills in the coming months, with a showdown expected at the end of September. That’s when the current spending bills expire and new ones must be passed in order to prevent a government shutdown. The broad decisions that Congress and the president will make about sequestration and overall spending levels will determine whether we can invest in our future and make lead poisoning a thing of the past.
Harry Stein is the Associate Director for Fiscal Policy for the Center for American Progress.