Recently, Kenneth Holt, the appointed secretary of Maryland’s Department of Housing and Community Development told an audience that the state’s laws regarding lead paint exposure should be loosened because mothers could intentionally expose their children to lead in order to receive compensation. Not only did he mischaracterize the level of compensation to which victims of residential lead exposure are entitled, but he later acknowledged he did not know of any case in which this had occurred.
It is quite unfortunate to see the health and safety of children becoming a partisan issue alongside voter ID laws and drug testing for welfare recipients. In each of these cases, wrongdoing is virtually nonexistent or negligible at best, but the resulting policies negatively impact thousands. Holt’s remarks were not only outrageous, but irresponsible because they perpetuate stereotypes that the poor and people of color are more interested in cheating the system than taking care of their families which undercuts the validity of the real issues they face.
As the chief representative of the Housing and Community Development department, Holt should support its vision to create “affordable, desirable, and secure housing” for low- and moderate-income residents. He may not have identified the race or class of the hypothetical woman he described, but the general public often views poverty through a racial lens despite data showing there are far more whites than any single minority group living in poverty and relying on public assistance. Similarly, the notion of the black “welfare queen” who has children solely to obtain government benefits–presumably without regard for their well-being–is a dangerous trope that further devalues black lives.
Even discounting the racialized narrative Holt’s comments evoked, lead exposure among children remains a very serious issue, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Evidence shows lead exposure in childhood can have lifelong effects including impaired cognitive abilities and behavioral problems. According to the CDC, there are at least 4 million American households with children living in conditions exposing them to high levels of lead. This Washington Post report detailing the effects of lead poisoning on Freddie Gray before he was killed by Baltimore police offers just one high-profile example of this toxin’s toll.
Holt offered no substantive reason to consider changing Maryland law regarding lead exposure, yet seems fully committed to pursuing changes. This agenda only works when there is an “othered” group who–in the public’s imagination–is taking advantage of a system for their own benefit. It is precisely because the perceived perpetrator is implicitly associated with poverty and minority status that the invented slight–cheating a (white) property owner out of hard earned income–becomes an actionable offense warranting legislative intervention. Parents are not poisoning their children for financial gain and to imply it is outrageous and irresponsible. The well-being of many low-income families depends on strong regulations on lead paint exposure and the General Assembly should heed the scientific evidence on the benefits of the existing policy rather than anecdotal fictions.