Monday, March 14, 2005

A Tale Of Two Hazards

In preparation for my new job, I'm reading - and adoring - Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels' book The Mommy Myth , which outlines what they call the "new momism": "the insistence that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids...and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children." I'm particularly struck by the portion of their argument that points out the ways in which children's developmental outcomes are seen as being entirely caused by individual parenting choices made by their mothers, for good or ill. It resonates for me with my discovery, early in pregnancy, that "pregnant women are assigned infinite responsibility for the protection of their fetuses - without, I can't help noticing, actually having much real control." Here's The Mommy Myth 's summation:
"First, the media warned mothers about the external threats to their kids from abductors and the like. Then the “family values” crowd made it clear that supporting the family was not part of the government’s responsibility. By the late 1980s, stories about welfare and crack mothers emphasized the internal threats to children from mothers themselves. And finally, the media brouhaha over the “Mommy Track” reaffirmed that businesses could not or would not budge much to accommodate the care of children. Together, and over time, these frameworks produced a prevailing common sense that only you, the individual mother, are responsible for your child’s welfare: The buck stops with you, period, and you’d better be a superstar."
Last night I was reading the chapter about "crack babies," which turns out to have been an entirely media-generated myth. No one who lived through 1980s America can fail to remember the horrific images of tiny, shriveled, wailing black infants lined up in hospital isolettes, or the grim predictions that a generation of urban babies had no future.
One psychologist told The New York Times that crack was “interfering with the central core of what it is to be human.” Charles Krauthammer, a columnist for the The Washington Post, wrote that crack babies were doomed to “a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.” The public braced for the day when this “biological underclass” would cripple our schools, fill our jails, and drain our social programs.
None of it turned out to be true. Some follow-up studies of cocaine-exposed children found that they were not much different from other children of similarly impoverished backgrounds. Others found subtle differences - for example, a four-and-a-half point IQ difference at age seven, or a mild increase in behavioral problems. Cocaine use during pregnancy does tend to lead to lower birthweights and perhaps a higher miscarriage rate. But no specific syndrome emerged, no set of crippling symptoms that all cocaine-exposed infants had in common. Many children turned out just fine - or were primarily harmed by the crack baby myth itself, the expectation of everyone around them that they were ruined and hopeless.

Reading that tragic account, I started to wonder about the discrepancy between the "crack baby" storyline and the media's response, or lack of response, to another prenatal and early childhood hazard: lead exposure. Lead poisoning has profound effects on children's neurological development. The blood lead level considered "safe" has been lowered four times since 1970, as doctors recognized that negative developmental effects were associated with even very small amounts of lead. Lead is associated with lower IQs (1 to 5 points for every 10 microgram-per-deciliter increase in blood lead) and with increased delinquent and violent behavior in adolescence. The research evidence is undisputed - because of it, we now have unleaded gas, lead-free paint, and government programs designed to promote lead abatement and widespread lead testing for poor children. What we haven't had is a media furor about "lead babies" potentially constituting a biologically determined underclass - even though, at the same time that the "crack baby epidemic" fueled headlines, scientists were determining that the safe blood level for lead had to be lowered yet again, and that 9% of American children had toxic levels. So why not?

One possibility is that, unlike crack cocaine, lead was not a new and sexy hazard in the 80s and 90s. Unleaded gas was introduced in 1978, and the dangers of lead paint chips in run-down urban rental housing were well-recognized in 1960s and 70s criticisms of "slumlords." But I also think the discrepancy makes sense in light of Douglas and Michaels' theory. The lead problem is complex; it implicates delinquent landlords, decaying inner city housing stock, the shift in low-income housing assistance from federally maintained properties to the Section 8 system (which relies on private landlords), and state and municipal governments. That complexity just didn't fit in with the 80s and 90s zeitgeist in which the problems of the poor were blamed on individual pathology. In contrast, the "crack baby epidemic" was about poor black women being bad mothers, individually to blame for putting their babies at risk.