Could orphanages do better than welfare?
Back in 1994, during the debate on welfare reform, Newt Gingrich suggested that many welfare kids would be better off in orphanages.
The proposal by the Republican congressman who would become House speaker the next year was met with great disdain from Democrats. It didn’t go anywhere.
Eventually, Congress and President Bill Clinton worked out a welfare-reform plan that put lifetime limits on cash assistance for unmarried mothers with the hope of reducing out-of-wedlock births and steering the poor from government dependency to work.
Although the number of recipients of cash assistance has dropped dramatically in the ensuing decade and a half, out-of-wedlock births have continued to rise. The national rate of 40 percent is an all-time high. It’s even worse in poorer areas of the nation, such as the Delta where more than seven out of 10 children are born to unmarried mothers.
Perhaps that’s because cash assistance isn’t the only thing that makes single parenthood financially feasible. There are a host of other non-cash welfare programs — food stamps, subsidized housing, Medicaid — that, even if they don’t encourage out-of-wedlock births, continue to enable them.
The difficulty with welfare reform, no matter how it’s structured, is figuring out how to keep from rewarding single mothers without punishing their innocent offspring.
Which gets us back to Gingrich’s dormant proposal to promote orphanages.
The institutions, most of them church-affiliated, fell out of favor after World War II because of the belief among child-welfare advocates that disadvantaged children did best if kept with their biological families or, absent that, a substitute foster one. Allegations of cruel treatment by the orphans’ caretakers — based as much in fiction (Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie) as fact — gave orphanages a bad reputation. The connotation of the word remains so negative that it’s all but been expunged from the names of the few orphanages that still exist in the United States.
The truth is, however, that life as an orphan for most in the 20th century wasn’t all that bad — and certainly preferable to a foster-care system that replaced it and too often shuffles children from home to home until they age out of the system.
Earlier this year, Richard B. McKenzie, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which he debunked the negative stereotypes about orphanages. McKenzie grew up in a North Carolina orphanage in the 1950s, has written a book about the history of orphanages and has helped produce a documentary on the subject.
During his research, McKenzie surveyed more than 2,500 fellow alumni from American orphanages. His conclusion: “The orphanage alumni have outpaced their counterparts in the general population often by wide margins in almost all social and economic measures, including educational attainment, income and positive attitude toward life.”
More surprisingly, most alumni have generally positive memories about their childhood. They might not have gotten a lot of affection from their caretakers in the orphanage, but what they did get, wrote McKenzie, was important — “a sense of security, permanence and home.”
Certainly, there have been bad orphanages. The number of children they scarred, however, pales in comparison to those who are crippled educationally, economically and socially by being raised in a home environment of instability, neglect and danger.
Sure, there are poor, unmarried mothers who turn out successful, well-adjusted children. Conversely, there are well-to-do, married parents who produce just the opposite. But, statistically speaking, the odds are stacked heavily against most children raised in a single-parent household — even more so when the mother is a mere child herself.
Besides, orphanages are really not as foreign to the modern American experience as the critics pretend. It’s what public schools in impoverished areas have been gradually becoming.
Poor children get fed as many meals at school as they get at home. Their teachers are expected to instruct them not just in academic subjects but in hygiene, character and manners. Education reformers say that poor children, in order to overcome the deficits of their home environment, need to start in school at an earlier age, stay in school for longer days and get shorter summer breaks.
If unequipped, unsuited biological parents are the problem for whatever part of the day they have their children, is it really in the children’s best interest to keep them in those homes?
Tim Kalich is the editor and publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth.