Orphanages, Pro and Con

Orphanages, Pro and Con

"The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage" by Dale Keiger, in Johns Hopkins Magazine (Apr. 1996), 212 Whitehead Hall, Johns Hopkins Univ., 3400 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218–2692; "Orphanages: The Real Story" by Richard B. McKenzie, in The Public Interest (Spring 1996), 1112 16th St. N.W., Ste. 530, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Read Time:
2m 21sec

House Speaker Newt Gingrich ignited a firestorm a while back when he recommended a return to orphanages for abused and neglected children as part of an overhaul of the welfare system. Ironically, notes Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, it was reaction to the problems with orphanages that originally paved the way for the modern social-welfare system.

Orphanages first appeared in significant numbers in the United States in the early 19th century, Crenson tells Johns Hopkins Magazine senior writer Keiger. They were founded by private charities as well as by states and counties. By 1900, according to Crenson, author of a forthcoming book, The Invisible Orphanage: A Pre-history of the American Welfare System, there were close to 1,000 of the institutions, housing some 100,000 youngsters. No more than 10 to 20 percent of the children were orphans; most had parents who were alive but destitute, unwilling to care for them, or considered unfit.

Although some 19th-century orphanages were well run and had compassionate adults in charge, conditions at many others left a lot to be desired. Many of the institutions were highly regimented, with corporal punishment common. Older boys often preyed, in some cases sexually, on younger ones.

Progressives such as Jane Addams wanted to abolish the institution. Keiger writes that the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, convened during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, declared "that children should not be removed from their families except for urgent and compelling reasons, of which destitution was not one. If necessary, poor families should receive financial aid to support their children." Foster families were to be preferred for children who did need to be taken from their parents.

"The conference had a phenomenal impact," Crenson says. By 1920, 40 states had acted to provide so-called mothers’ pensions. Although most states confined the aid to widows and wives of disabled fathers, a few states also assisted unwed mothers. These pensions, Crenson says, were a precursor to the modern welfare system.

The orphanage did not completely disappear. McKenzie, a business professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage, reports on a survey of alumni, all age 44 or older now, of three modern orphanages. Measured by median income, jobless rate, education, time in prison, and other criteria, McKenzie says, the alumni seem to have done better than their counterparts in the general population. More than 92 percent said that, if they’d had the choice, they would have preferred their orphanage to foster care, and 75 percent said they would have favored their orphanage over the available members of their own families. At least some orphanages, McKenzie concludes, "appear to have known how to break the cycles of poverty, neglect, and abuse for hordes of children."


More From This Issue