256. "Cruelty to Kids?" Chicago Tribune, (December 1, 1994), Sec. 1, p. 13. Also published: "Orphanages: Bad for the Kids and Bad for the Budget" St. Petersburg Times, (December 11, 1994).
Never before, in my 33 years of following how public policy is fashioned in this and other countries, have I witnessed an idea fly from the pen of a polemist to draft legislation in such lightening speed. The call to place illegitimate children in orphanages has not been subject to half-serious examination by any of the think tanks from the right, left, or center. It has not been the subject of congressional hearings, opened to public commentary, examined by educators, psychologists or practically anyone else. In effect, the proposal is so vague that the few who talk about it refer to rather different ideas. And still we are off and running. Rep. Newt Gingrich R-Ga.) included in the Personal Responsibility Act, a part of the “Contract with America,” the provision that states may use federal grant funds “to establish and operate orphanages.”
The leading promoter of this policy recommendation is the notorious darling of conservatives, Charles Murray. Murray wrote, as an aside in an op-ed for a daily newspaper, that illegitimate children should be put up for adoption. And, those that cannot be placed should be placed in orphanages. These should be no “Dickensian barracks,” but warm, nourishing places on which the government should spend “lavishly.” Those who are repelled by the term, Murray suggests, should think about the places as 24-hour child-care centers. End of exposition.
In free-form speeches (Murray does not need to refer to notes), the champion of modern day orphanages is quite open about what he really is after: he favors “Draconian” measures to convince single women to refrain from having children. He argues forcefully that the only place for children to be born into is a marriage. To drive this home he calls for taking illegitimate children from their mothers and giving them away for adoption or placing them in orphanages. He is the first to admit that such action might be perceived as heartless, but he stresses that we are on the brink of a moral collapse that requires such extreme measures.
This raises the first question even for those of us who agree that most children are better off with two parents (and married to one another) than with only one: does removing children from their mothers - and putting them into an institution, however well appointed - improve the chances that the children will develop properly? Social science evidence strongly points in the other direction. Children do much better with their natural mothers. Given the lack of bonding in orphanages, their likely products are going to be more sociopaths - just about the last thing we need.
Star political scientist James Q. Wilson calls for quite a different kind of home for a rather different purpose. He wants to take children together with their teenage mothers and place them in “strictly supervise homes.” This goal here is to foster personal responsibility in the young women and ensure that they learn to take care of their children. Wilson further argues that some children who are “too difficult for these homes” should be placed in boarding schools.
One thing the two gentlemen have in common is that neither is sufficiently interested in the costs of orphanages. They could not be bothered to share with us even a rough estimate of what these costs might be. Rough estimates from existing orphanages show it to cost about $100 a day, or about $36,000 a year, to house a child. That would amount to more than $72,000 for a mother who has two kids. In comparison, such a family on welfare would receive cash and food stamps amounting to about $8,000. In short, the new cure to welfare costs at least nine times more than the problem it seeks to treat, and this is in a time when we a falling all over ourselves to cut welfare and other government expenditures. The notion that these homes for the children of the under-class will be well appointed , let alone draw lavishly on public funds, flies in the face of our cutting back on everything else, to the point that some of our military personnel have gone on food stamps and patients are discharged from hospitals long before they have recovered fully from surgery. State-run or financed orphanages are more apt to be like a cross between state juvenile correctional institutions and nursing homes for those whose insurance has run out than properly endowed places to bring up children. If you doubt this prediction, ask the next taxpayer you come across.
I am not arguing that orphanages could not serve some children under special circumstances, yet to be determined. And, I surely do not favor holding up good ideas for endless policy-wonking. But orphanages whose basic features have not been specified, whose effect on children - at least at first examination - seems very likely to be harmful for most, and are estimated to be as costly as all dickens, should be sent back to the shop.
Some of the champions of 21st Century orphanages compare them to the children’s homes provided by the Israeli communal settlements. However, in these kibbutzim the parents (both of them) are very actively involved in the development of their children in addition to the staff; the staff is the best the kibbutz can find because bringing up children is considered to be of the highest priority for these small villages: and every member of the commune chips in - here, indeed, the whole village raises the child. If we had such a commitment of parents and communities to the proper upbringing of children, we would not need orphanages nor most welfare programs. Indeed, this is precisely what is happening in Israel: they are rapidly closing the collective children’s homes and returning the children to their parents. Maybe here is a message for the holidays from the Holy Land.