Roberto Rivera

Big Hairy Deal


Roberto Rivera

In late July, six Michigan state employees were charged with various crimes connected to the Flint Water Crisis. The allegations in the indictment “show a concerted effort to cover up warning signs of lead poisoning.”

Lead poisoning, as you probably know, is linked to a host of cognitive and behavioral problems, so much so that you can make a plausible case that much of the social pathologies we associate with poverty and what was once called the “underclass,” including violent crime, originate, to a significant degree, in high levels of lead exposure.

This made what happened in Flint more than a catastrophe, although it was certainly that for Flint residents. It was a crime.

But the extreme acts of a relative handful of current and former government employees should not blind us to the fact that lead exposure is an even bigger problem than we think. At least, that seems to be the implications of a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

In it, researchers from Brown and Princeton analyzed the results of a lead removal program in Rhode Island. The program “pressured landlords to update housing, particularly in the oldest city centers, to remove potential lead contaminants.” They paid close attention to a program that “targeted low-income and minority neighborhoods.”

What they found was an eye-opener: “Reducing the amount of lead in a child’s blood by just one microgram per deciliter is associated with a 3.1 percent decrease in the chance of falling into the ‘substantially below proficient’ category on reading tests and a 2.1 percent reduction in the chance of receiving that ranking on math tests.”

To put this in perspective, until 2012, blood lead levels weren’t considered a matter of concern unless they exceeded 10 micrograms per deciliter. Stated differently, children were walking around with blood lead levels high enough to have measurable cognitive impact and no one took note of it or informed their parents. It’s become increasingly clear that there is no safe level of lead exposure.

In addition, the authors concluded “that the lead reduction program they studied contributed to a substantial portion of the decrease in the achievement gap between white students and black students observed since implementation.”

This is, as Dionysius the Areopagite once said, a big hairy deal. (Actually, he said no such thing. But wouldn’t it be great if we could trace the expression back to him?) The research strongly implies that there are specific interventions that can make a measurable difference in educational outcomes among those kids who need it most.

That’s a much-needed antidote to the kind of “learned helplessness” that permeates so much of the discussion surrounding how to help poor kids. We have convinced ourselves that nothing will make a difference. Actually, to put it more precisely, we’ve convinced ourselves that the only thing that can make the kind of difference that we’re looking for is a Really Big Thing that we have no idea how to make happen.

For many of us, the Really Big Thing is “culture” or “family formation.” We tell ourselves that poor kids lag behind their more affluent counterparts because they are more likely to come from single-parent homes or worse. This is true an unfortunate amount of the time. What is also true is that we have no real idea of what to do about the problem of family formation (or the lack thereof) other than to issue jeremiads about it. We certainly don’t know enough to make the kind of dent that would show up in educational outcomes.

But we do know how to eliminate lead from these kids’ environment. It’s not the Really Big Thing we would like to see happen, but a kid in a lead-free environment has a measurably better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty than he would have if the lead remained in place. And that’s something.

Or at least it should be.


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