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Author and economist Bill Black discusses claims of a Maryland official that Baltimore mothers might poison their own children for free housing and money

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome everyone back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. According to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun, Gov. Larry Hogan’s top housing official Kenneth C. Holt, secretary of housing and community development, said last week that he wants to look at loosening state lead paint poisoning laws, saying they could motivate a mother to deliberately poison a child to obtain free housing. To discuss this and perhaps help explain what in the world is being said here is Bill Black. Bill is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri Kansas City. He’s a white-collar criminologist and a former financial regulator, and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. He’s also a regular contributor to the Real News and joins us now from Kansas City, Missouri. Welcome back to the Real News, Bill Black. BILL BLACK, PROF. OF ECONOMICS AND LAW, UMKC: Thank you. BALL: So what is going on here? What is this allegation and the context of it, and what is being said to be done about it? BLACK: I assume that I’m on to be an interpreter of the insane, because that’s what this is all about. Maryland’s 2H club, Hogan and Holt, have come up with the theory, of course adopted entirely by the private sector that fed them this story, that a mother might deliberately put a lead sinker in her child’s mouth so that it would elevate their blood lead levels, in other words poison them, so that they could, quote, get free housing till they were 18. Now of course there were no facts. And of course, Holt didn’t say, okay, I got this weird claim and I’m going to inquire about it. He said no, no, we should change the laws and weaken protection against lead poisoning, which is overwhelmingly of children, because of this fantasy deliberately created by the industry that a mother might poison her children deliberately and supposedly get free housing. So among the many forms of insanity here are first, this is of course Holt, who’s supposedly the expert in housing. He’s in charge of it, appointed by Hogan. And that’s not what the Maryland law says at all. You don’t get free housing till you’re 18 because your child has been poisoned. It might make sense, but there’s nothing in the Maryland law that does that, so he invented that part. And of course the industry invented this lie to try to weaken protection, and that one really is serious. So here are some of the key facts. Lead is an immensely powerful neurotoxin. There is no safe level of exposure to lead. We have fairly recently, we being the CDC and others, reduced threshold levels where we fear serious problems by half, because lead turns out to be even more damaging than the scientists originally thought. We have over a half million Americans poisoned each year by lead, overwhelmingly children. In Maryland, in fact in Baltimore, we have over 50,000 residents, again overwhelmingly children, who show unduly elevated lead levels that violated the old standard, which again we have cut by half. So it’s, the number us appreciably above 50,000. And Baltimore and Maryland have a particularly interesting history in this regard. It was Maryland that first banned lead paint in children’s toys, because of course anybody that’s a parent knows that children chew on their toys. And when they chew on lead paint they are poisoned. And that was a good thing, obviously, that Maryland took that initiative. But it was promptly repealed due to pressure by the industry which consistently created lies like this about how it was really the mothers, the incompetent mothers that were causing the problem, and lead was really just a fine thing. A neurotoxin was just a fine thing to put on children’s toys, and of course in paint. Where the industry also lied, consistently created deliberately false studies to mislead people about the dangers of lead paint and of course the big third one was lead in gasoline, which for the younger folks used to be absolutely the norm as a way of increasing octane. And so these three things caused really severe lead poisoning of many people, but particularly children. Johns Hopkins was the world leader in studying lead, but it was also the place that did a key study that deliberately exposed children to lead. and indeed to lead in its most dangerous form. So it, too, has a checkered history. In any event the absolute last thing in the world we should be doing is weakening the lead standards. It is a disgrace that Congress in 2013 slashed the money to try to get lead out of American homes. We still spend vastly too little on this. The final craziness, of course, is it is the same conservatives that absolutely refuse to do anything to stop the waves of fraud and predatory lending that targeted primarily African-Americans, and the incidence today in Baltimore of lead poisoning is grossly disproportionately in African-Americans, but those conservatives said we couldn’t do anything to stop the predatory lending because the evidence was simply anecdotal. Now, those were real cases. Here we have a completely invented fantasy by the industry with a track record of creating this kind of propaganda and lies, and they immediately changed, proposed changing government policy without even checking on an obvious not only lie, but really, this is a libel of the American people, especially the poor people and mothers of Baltimore. BALL: You know Bill, just very quickly, it sounds reminiscent of–this is a 21st century version of the old welfare queen propaganda that we got most popularly in the 1980s blaming poverty on mostly poor black mothers who want to have more babies to get increased benefits. Does that–. BLACK: Yeah. This is far beyond it. I mean, the idea that a mother would deliberately poison her child is an obscene act of slander, and it’s heavily racialized. Everybody knows that he’s talking about African-American mothers in Baltimore in this context. That’s what the industry creates, these kind of lies. And it’s one thing to reduce welfare spending, but to slash the spending on protecting our children from a neurotoxin, which is what they successfully do through these kinds of lies, is again even more obscene than the welfare queen lies. BALL: Well Bill Black, thank you again for joining us here at the Real News and helping us understand what’s going on a little bit with this issue of lead and these false claims. BLACK: Thank you. BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News, as well. And for all involved, I’m Jared Ball again here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.


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William K. Black, author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, teaches economics and law at the University of Missouri Kansas City (UMKC). He was the Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007. He has taught previously at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and at Santa Clara University, where he was also the distinguished scholar in residence for insurance law and a visiting scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Black was litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, deputy director of the FSLIC, SVP and general counsel of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and senior deputy chief counsel, Office of Thrift Supervision. He was deputy director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement.

Black developed the concept of "control fraud" frauds in which the CEO or head of state uses the entity as a "weapon." Control frauds cause greater financial losses than all other forms of property crime combined. He recently helped the World Bank develop anti-corruption initiatives and served as an expert for OFHEO in its enforcement action against Fannie Mae's former senior management.