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July 17, 2013 10:11 AM Doing Less on Lead

By Ed Kilgore

Conservatives are supposed to care a great deal about reducing crime. That’s why the alleged need for guns for self-protection against criminals has remained high on the list of arguments against gun regulation, occasionally even elevated above the argument that liberty-loving citizens need to stockpile arms in case they decide its time to violently overthrow the federal government. That’s why (or at least partially why) most of the right-of-center universe has made a hero out of George Zimmerman, that doughy protector of life and property against hoodie-wearing young black men.

Now it’s probably safe to say that House Republicans are not regular readers of social science research, or of Kevin Drum’s efforts at Mother Jones to draw attention to research showing a very high correlation of the trends for violent crime and lead exposure. But still, you’d think they’d consider holding a hearing on the subject, or at least avoid policy decisions that willfully ignore what we know on the subject.

But no, as Kevin unhappily noted yesterday: the House-passed federal budget for the current fiscal year proposed reducing funding for the primary federal lead abatement program (already hit by sequestration) by more than half.

You don’t have to buy the linkage between lead exposure and crime to care about this: it’s long been known that lead exposure (especially concentrated among the poor who live in substandard housing where lead paint has not been removed) is associated with a variety of physical ailments and learning disabilities, not to mention preventable deaths. But you’d like to hope the strong possibility that lead contributes to the incidence of crime would get some conservative attention.

Interestingly, one conservative who did pay attention to Kevin’s article and address the general subject, Jim Manzi (at National Review), mainly objected to the claim that the evidence of crime/lead linkage was sufficiently strong to justify the $400 billion investment ($20 billion per year over 20 years) Kevin recommends.

Okay, fine. Is six-tenths of one percent of that amount perhaps prudent? That’s the level of funding ($120 million) the federal government was providing before the sequester hit. House Republicans would take it down to $50 million. Kevin figures that’s because Republican pols don’t care much about the poor and non-white people mostly afflicted by lead exposure. While true, I’d say the bigger problem (based partly on my experience in the crime policy battles of the 1980s and 1990s) is a stubborn lack of interest in any crime-fighting strategy that doesn’t involve guns and prisons.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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