Orphanages are not the solution

Megan E. McLaughlin

Historical evidence shows that institutionalizing children did not solve the problems of poor families in the past and will not do so today.

In 1994, during the early days of the public debate on welfare reform, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich ignited a media firestorm by suggesting that orphanages are better for poor children than life with a mother on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Responding to blistering criticism, he first defended the proposal by invoking the idyllic orphanage life of the 1938 film “Boys Town,” finally retreating, at least rhetorically, from the entire controversy. Orphanages became just another blip on the nation’s radar screen, or so it seemed.

In fact, the plan to revive orphanages is embedded in the Personal Responsibility Act, the Republican plan for welfare reform, and is a major piece of the Republican Contract With America. The Republicans’ pledge promised to balance the budget, protect defense spending, and cut taxes, targeting programs for the poor–cash assistance, food, housing, medical, and child care–as the big areas for major budget savings. Parents who are poor, it has been predicted, will have little or no choice but to watch their children board the orphan trains in search of shelter and food. The political question remains: Are orphanages the solution–or part of the solution–to the welfare problem?

Orphanages for poor children are not a new proposal. They originated in England in the 17th century and were adopted in the U.S. in the early 18th century out of concerns and biases similar to those driving current proposals. Though the word “orphan” is defined as “a child deprived of parents,” American orphanages always have housed youngsters who had parents–usually poor mothers–as well as those who did not.

Earlier in 17th-century America, even though no child welfare system existed, orphans as well as children of the poor were presumed to require attention from the public authorities.

The care of poor children has been a recurring theme and concern in this country. The assumptions of those early years continue to prevail today. If mothers and fathers can not provide adequately for their kids, they are assumed to be inadequate parents; are perceived as bad role models because they do not work, and their children should be saved from them; should be stigmatized and made social outcasts; and should lose their right to plan for their offspring.

The nation is in the midst of a welfare debate that integrates many of these assumptions. The Personal Responsibility Act approved by the House in March, 1995, denies AFDC benefits to children born to unmarried women under age 18; those born to women of any age after their AFDC case is opened; kids whose paternity has not been established; legal immigrants; and to all after a maximum of 60 months receipt of benefits, whether or not they can obtain a job.

The act cuts welfare spending by $69,000,000,000 over five years. It replaces the Federal AFDC program with capped block grants to the states–lump-sum payments that do not expand with changing needs of the population and the inevitable downturns in the economy. This dramatically alters the status of AFDC. It eliminates the entitlement to benefits even to those who are eligible. If the state runs out of money or has different priorities, the needy will have to find other support systems, primarily through private charity. The act allows states to determine their own eligibility requirements. Additionally, it cuts food stamp programs by 14% over five years and combines various food and nutrition initiatives into block grants, making the state provision of school breakfast and lunch programs optional. At the same time, the act provides no assistance to parents for obtaining employment, training, or child care. It is the savings from these restrictions that Gingrich proposes to return to the states for the development of orphanages to care for youngsters whose parents are made destitute by the act’s impact.

According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, if the Personal Responsibility Act were enacted, more than 5,000,000 of the 10,000,000 children on AFDC would be denied benefits. Gingrich and his colleagues agree that alternatives will be needed. They predict that family members will take in some children; the rest could be placed in orphanages funded by the savings from the reduced AFDC caseloads. When poor mothers could not provide for their offspring in the 18th and 19th centuries, society solved their “poverty” problem by opening orphanages. As the human and economic costs became starkly apparent, other alternatives were sought.

By the 20th century, the use of orphanages declined dramatically. Child welfare workers began focusing on strengthening families as the best way to rear youngsters. The 1909 White House Conference on Children declared that “homelife is the highest and finest product of civilization” and stressed the superiority of families over institutional care. The new focus on families led to an increase in the use of foster homes, and orphanages began to transform themselves into “residential treatment centers,” with smaller facilities, professional staff, and even higher costs.

Over the next 70 years, the use of orphanages declined, first in ideology, then gradually in practice. This process was helped along by the passage, in 1935, of the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program, a small part of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act. This legislation supported the idea of poor mothers caring for their own offspring in their homes instead of institutionalizing them. This was achieved by providing needy single-parent families with a small monthly stipend.

With this new thrust on strengthening families, the percentage of kids in institutions dropped from 57.8% in 1933 to 31% in 1962 and 17.1% in 1989. In 1980, the Adoption Assistance Act further reduced use of institutional care by encouraging the return of children to their biological parents and putting an emphasis on services to prevent out-of-home placement.

Dangerous and regressive

Today, Republicans are choosing to return to failed options by reinstating the dangerous and regressive system of the 19th century. An analysis of the Personal Responsibility Act reveals that it embodies and exemplifies the very assumptions that existed then. These assumptions are given further credibility by conservative apostles who provide unfounded rationales for these policies. Gingrich claims his own inspiration comes from former drug czar William Bennett’s 1990 suggestion that children of drug users be placed in orphanages. Conservative author Charles Murray argues that all AFDC spending should be redirected to the construction of orphanages for poor women’s offspring. He reinforces his proposal in his best-selling book, The Bell Curve, which claims, among other things, that African-Americans are genetically inferior. A pseudoscientific finding contends to validate the common perception that the majority of those on welfare are black and/or Hispanic, then exploits existing and pervasive racial divisions. This, in turn, makes it easier to justify the idea of orphanages for AFDC children.

There are those who would characterize this statement as gross exaggeration. While they prefer to ignore the racism that is embedded in many of the proposals for welfare reform, they need only familiarize themselves with the statements made by Republican Joseph Bruno, Majority Leader of the New York State Senate. Bruno publicly accused State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of not wanting to discuss welfare reform because he “is beholden to blacks and Hispanics . . . the people that got their hands outs.”

The reintroduction of orphanages into the political discourse as the preferred system for caring for kids with poor parents is consistent with the trend toward increased institutionalization. This is exemplified by the “three strikes and you’re in” proposals for convicted felons and the growing support for treating children as criminals at younger and younger ages. However, the U.S. tried institutionalization of children in the past, using orphanages in particular, and they failed miserably.

The orphanages of the 19th century were overcrowded and hazardous to the physical health of children. In the 1850s, the Philadelphia House of Refuge crammed 100 children into five dormitories; in Charleston, S.C., 200 children slept in 10 rooms; and in the New York House of Refuge, bathtubs held 15 or 20 boys at a time. Photographs reveal the overcrowding and poor health conditions that were rampant. As recently as the 1980s, audits of New York City’s congregate care facilities uncovered serious defects in health and safety. Hazards included disease, repeated violations of fire codes, and injuries to children from broken furniture and scalding tap water. Clearly, in the past, life in orphanages greatly increased the number of youngsters condemned to abusive living situations and, more tragically, at great risk of abuse. Recent studies have found that the rate of abuse and neglect in institutions is more than twice that in foster homes.

It has been demonstrated that orphanages are harmful and have a deleterious impact on many children, especially those who are under six years old. (More than 5,700,000 kids under the age of six are poor.) It also is known that separation from parents can cause extreme trauma. Psychological studies continue to hold that the summary removal of youngsters from parents who have been major caregivers poses a severe threat to their development and should be allowed only under conditions in which physical survival is at stake.

Although the trauma of being removed from one’s family and placed in an orphanage can be overcome by later exposure to a loving and stimulating environment, numerous studies reveal that orphanages usually do not provide such an environment. Instead, children tend to confront bleak, impersonal surroundings and have adult contact only with overworked staff members who can not give them the attention they need. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that those who left orphanages after long stays show severe deficits in development, have trouble forming and maintaining close relationships, and have difficulty with conceptual thinking, increased tendencies towards unacceptable social behavior, and poor impulse control.

Orphanages not only will harm children, they also will affect taxpayers. They are extremely costly, as even supporters of drastic welfare changes acknowledge. In contrast, AFDC consumes just one cent out of every Federal tax dollar. Elimination of the entire program would not have a major impact on the Federal budget or the deficit. In fact, the increased use of orphanages would boost over-all governmental spending, as well as bureaucratic control over the lives of poor families and poor children.

Estimates of the savings from the proposed changes and reductions in the welfare reform proposal would not be sufficient to cover the costs of orphanages. In New York State, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that, of the 741,000 children on AFDC, 349,000 would be denied benefits, saving $27,116,000. This amount would pay for a mere 743 orphanage slots.

The projections are similar for other states. In California, more than 1,000,000 kids would lose benefits, and the Federal savings of $64,152,000 would be adequate to pay for just 1,758 orphanage slots. Even if one in five youngsters ends up in orphanages, the total outlay would be $36,500,000,000 per year. The bases for these projections are not exaggerated; if anything, they are underestimated. They assume that states will not adopt more restrictive options and are based on an average yearly cost of $36,500 per child. At Chicago’s Mercy Home, the cost is $59,500 per child per year; at Boys Town, $47,000. Furthermore, these figures do not include the capital and start up expenses that would be necessary for there to be creation of new orphanages.

Assuming that a significant number of children are placed in orphanages, what happens to the mothers” They will not disappear. Current proposals argue in favor of welfare-to-work programs and time limits on benefits. The bill passed by the House requires 50% of those now on welfare to be employed by 2003.

There are two problems with these requirements. First, the bill includes no money for creating jobs or child care and other work-related programs. Second, it would cost an additional $6,000 to move each recipient into the proposed workfare program. In addition, many of these mothers will not find work with time-limited assistance and the other restrictions. It is more likely that they will re-emerge in homeless shelters, prisons, and/or on the streets. In urban centers such as New York, plans are set to ensure that these women will remain invisible. Begging in public places is prohibited and aggressively discouraged; “squeegee people” are arrested; the police force has been enlarged and emboldened; and more prisons are being built. As with orphanages, these alternatives are more expensive than the status quo. Ultimately, they are not only punitive, but counterproductive.

The implicit assumption is that savings will accrue because of reductions of the welfare rolls, resulting from less out-of-wedlock births. The popular view is that these women and teens have children because of the availability of welfare.

The data contradict this. Out-of-wedlock births have been on the rise for all Americans, not just welfare mothers. In the past decade, they have doubled among non-poor white women. According to a 1993 U.S. Census Bureau study, the number of women in America who are having kids out of wedlock has risen by 60% compared to a decade ago. The report further notes a marked increase in the numbers of college-educated women who are having children out of wedlock. Moreover, the data reveal that there is only a weak link, if any, between benefits receipt and reproductive decisions. Births to unmarried women fluctuate independently of AFDC expenditures. If the availability of AFDC support had some relationship to birth, states like Alabama and Mississippi, with maximum payments of $164 and $120 per month, respectively, for a three-person family, would have far less out-of-wedlock births among unmarried women and teens than, say, Alaska, where the AFDC payments are $923 for a family of three.

Teaching through punishment

The Personal Responsibility Act specifically targets mothers under 18 who constitute just eight percent of the AFDC population. They, and the kids they bear, are to be denied benefits. The mandate seems to be teach through punishment: starve the mother and child, remove the child, and the mother will stop having children. While focusing on the sexual behavior of young women, legislators tend to ignore the critical relationship linking poverty, poor education, and early childbearing. They also ignore the fact that countries with the most comprehensive sex education programs and most accessible contraception have the lowest rates of teen pregnancy, abortion, and childbearing. The numbers of births each year per 1,000 women under 19 in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands are all less than 16, compared with the U.S., where they are 53 per 1,000.

If orphanages hurt children, cost too much money, and do little to prevent illegitimacy, what are the real objectives of these proposals? Essentially, most of those for welfare reform, including the ones for orphanages, reflect a fervent desire to limit the number of children that poor people have. Since there are legal and societal constraints that prevent them from doing so directly, they have chosen to emphasize the moral arguments against having kids out of wedlock–hence, the focus on unmarried women and teens. The restrictions imposed on welfare recipients, however, will apply to all women, including those who had their offspring while married. Nearly half the children on welfare in any given month were born to parents who were married at the time of their birth. These women will be punished, along with the unmarried mothers, because they are poor, not because of their marital status. Or they will be punished because they have failed to find and hold onto husbands to support them. This makes the U.S. the only country that, as a matter of public policy, punishes women who do not remain with their husbands.

In recent months, debates about welfare reform and the use of orphanages have commanded the attention of legislators, academics, the media, and the public. In essence, this has helped deflect attention from the roots of the situation: poverty, the declining standard of living, and the dramatic impact of the global economy on the nation. It has worked to thrust the political behavior of women into the political limelight.

Nevertheless, the economic situation can not be ignored. The middle class is shrinking, and Americans are feeling insecure and outraged. They have watched their jobs leave for other countries, their earnings decrease, and their families suffer. Politicians unable or unwilling to face these serious economic issues and without the threat of communism to mobilize public concern have focused on the poor and their “unacceptable” behavior. The real problem–jobs–remains unaddressed.

Whether it is tax, legal, or welfare reform or orphanages, the message is the same: The nation does not care about the poor or any longer welcome the “tired, hungry, feeble and huddled masses.” Americans now define the poor as the source of the problem, whether they are born in the U.S. or legally immigrated here.

The historical evidence of the past century strongly highlights that orphanages did not solve the plight of poor families in the past and will not do so today. It also underscores the need for policies that strengthen, rather than break up, families. The family is society’s most fundamental institution. Nationally, there is widespread consensus that children thrive best in families and, thus, that it is necessary to support families.

As the U.S. approaches the 21st century, the political question is: How is this to be done? Should orphanages be created to institutionalize youngsters whose mothers are too poor to support them? Or should society create jobs, strengthen education, and provide child care to enable mothers and fathers to earn enough to provide for their families?

Even though the future depends on the strength of families’ health and the well-being of children, the nation seems unable to act on such knowledge and beliefs. Strong families only can be ensured if parents are provided with the means to earn a living at adequate wages; have access to quality child care, training, and education; and, in times of crisis, can count on the support of a safety net. We know what must be done and need the courage to fight for this vision. The question remains: Do we have the will?

Dr McLaughlin is executive director/CEO, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Inc., New York.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Society for the Advancement of Education

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning