Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has decided that a man who believes low-income parents might intentionally poison their children with lead in order to score free housing from the state should continue to administer Maryland’s public housing system.
During a public event Friday, State Housing Secretary Kenneth Holt said that state laws regarding lead abatement in homes are too strict and invite abuse. The secretary told the crowd “the current law could motivate a mother to put a fishing weight in a child’s mouth to elevate the level of lead in his bloodstream and qualify for free housing at the landlord’s expense until the child turned 18,” according to a paraphrase of the comments in the Baltimore Sun. Holt declined to defend his hypothetical child-abuse scheme with evidence that it has ever happened, according to the paper.
Holt quickly apologized over the weekend, and on Monday evening Hogan’s office told the Sun that the governor had decided to keep Holt on despite the comments. “The governor expressed his disappointment and directed the secretary to continue reaching out…to reassure [people] of his commitment to the safety and health of all Marylanders,” spokesman Doug Mayer told the paper. A group of 30 Democrats from the state legislature had called for Holt to resign, but Hogan “remains confident that he can continue to effectively lead this department,” the spokesman said.
Besides the offense caused, Holt’s remarks were also inaccurate, according to a lead abatement activist named Ruth Ann Norton. Maryland’s law requires landlords to secure free housing for tenants only for the duration of the lead abatement work in a home where the toxin is found rather than throughout the child’s pre-adult life, Norton told the Sun. The governor’s office said Saturday that it does not support reduced landlord liability for lead exposure.
But if Holt’s fears are unlikely to alter state policy in the near term, they suggest that the public servant in charge of assuring Marylanders access to housing is very concerned that people cheat the system. A similar kind of elaborate — and inaccurate — public concern over potential abuses for which there is little evidence has helped drive cuts to the federal food stamps program and attempts by state lawmakers to impose new restrictions on how those benefits can be spent.
Lead poisoning, mostly from old paint that contains the metal, is one of America’s biggest and quietest public health tragedies. Nationwide, “more than half a million kids are poisoned by lead each year, and the majority come from cities like Baltimore” where poverty is high and the housing options available to low-income families are poor, FiveThirtyEight noted earlier this summer. The lead poisoning rate for children in Baltimore is triple the national figure, the site found, even though it’s been nearly 40 years since lead paint was outlawed.
Exposure to even tiny quantities of lead drastically increases a child’s likelihood of developmental problems including delayed speech development, struggles with impulse control, learning disabilities, and aggressive behavior. These affects have been known for years, but it was only in 2012 that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Sociologists have noted a correlation between lead levels in gasoline and crime rates, though the evidence isn’t strong enough to be confident
that cutting down on lead emissions caused the nationwide drop in crime that is often credited to the “Tough on Crime” politics of the 1990s.
The history of public policy toward lead in consumer products is ugly. For decades, paint manufacturers paid public relations firms to commission newspaper stories that downplayed the threat lead posed to child development. Years before Holt’s speculation about intentional poisonings, the federal government itself blamed parental neglect for lead poisoning in official public service announcements. Later, when Johns Hopkins University scientists set out to find the most cost-effective abatement technique, they knowingly exposed families to lead without disclosing the risks to parents who signed up for the study.
Over the past 25 years, “the US government has spent less than $2 billion on lead abatement,” Helen Epstein wrote in a review of a book on the history of lead poisoning in America. The slack response has had predictably disparate effects on black America. Black and white kids faced roughly the same odds of lead exposure in the late 1990s. But by 2006, white families had seen their chances improve, and black children were even more likely to live in a home with lead poisoning risk than they had been eight years earlier.