The Best Thing About Orphanages

By Richard B. McKenzie

January 15, 2010 /

Last month, Duke University researchers issued the first report on their multiyear study of 3,000 orphaned, abandoned and neglected children in developing countries in Africa and East and South Asia. About half were reared in small and large "institutions" (or orphanages) and half in "community" programs (kin and foster care). Contrary to conventional wisdom, the researchers found that children raised in orphanages by nonfamily members were no worse in their health, emotional and cognitive functioning, and physical growth than those cared for in their communities by relatives. More important, the orphanage-reared children performed better than their counterparts cared for by community strangers, which is commonly the case in foster-care programs.

Critics of orphanages point out that children are always better off in loving and safe biological families. That's always been the case, of course, but many kids have no hope of access to such families. There are about 143 million orphaned children, and tens of millions more abandoned, in the world today. Over a half-million American kids are in foster care (which is often luxury care by the standards of orphanage care in poor countries), but still a sizable percentage of American foster-care kids will have their disadvantages compounded in one important way: They will spend their entire childhoods in the worst of all possible situations, "permanent temporary care," in which they will be moved from one placement to the next to the next, many losing count of their foster homes before they "age out" of the system at 18.

When Newt Gingrich suggested in 1994 that many welfare kids would be better off in orphanages, Hillary Clinton declared the proposal "unbelievable and absurd." Conventional child-welfare wisdom hasn't changed much since.

I watched the Gingrich-Clinton debate with a personal interest, having grown up in an orphanage in North Carolina in the 1950s. I wrote a column for this newspaper defending my own orphanage and others like it: "Most critics would like the public to believe that those of us who went through orphanages were throttled by the experience. No doubt, some were. However, most have charged on." The children at Barium Springs Home for Children worked a lot and didn't get the hugs many children take for granted, but we did get advantages that many children today don't get—a sense of security, permanence and home. I was shocked by the number of orphanage alumni who called, faxed or emailed in agreement. What's more, many added, "My orphanage was better than yours," which made me wonder if the experts knew what they were talking about. During the past decade I have surveyed more than 2,500 alumni from 15 American orphanages. In two journal articles, I reported the same general 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. White orphanage alumni had a 39% higher rate of college graduation than white Americans of the same age in the general population, and less than 3% had hostile memories of their orphanage experiences. University of Alabama historian David Beito replicated the study with several hundred alumni from another orphanage, reaching much the same conclusions.Five years ago, George Cawood directed a documentary, "Homecoming: The Forgotten World of America's Orphanages," for which crews traveled to four orphanage homecomings where the aging alumni gathered by the hundreds to celebrate their childhood memories. The producers and cameramen were amazed at the fond memories the alumni reported and feared that they had not filmed enough bad memories to achieve the "dramatic tension" needed to keep audience interest. Nevertheless, I am proud to have been executive producer on the project, because the filmmakers produced an award-winning, honest and powerful oral history of orphanage life that has since aired on many PBS stations across the country.Before 1900, life expectancy was short, which resulted in many orphans. In the 1800s, the "orphan trains" that sent many street kids from New York and other urban centers to live with Protestant farm families in the Midwest inspired Catholic and Jewish groups to establish second-best solutions—orphanages—to prevent their own children from being converted to Protestantism. Conventional wisdom has it that all orphanages through the centuries were set up for no higher purpose than to abuse children, as Oliver was treated in Dickens's novel. But a new collection of academic histories of orphanages dating to the first millennium, which I edited, draws a different conclusion: Orphanages were generally created by communities to improve the life chances of the children in their care and, by and large, did just that.

There were bad orphanages in the past, and there are, no doubt, bad orphanages across the globe, but the same can just as easily be said of many biological and foster families. Good orphanages, which provide long-term care for disadvantaged children (and are different from group homes, which provide short-term care, often for difficult children), are not the only solution for all modern child-welfare problems, but neither is foster care nor adoption. Children need options, including orphanage care.

Critics are right on one point: Orphanages are far too expensive. Unfortunately, too many orphanage proponents and directors are convinced that all such care has to be "high quality" (or better than family care), which means high cost and limited access. But make no mistake about it: Orphanages are returning slowly across this country and around the world because communities see the need is so great.

The world needs a Sam Walton of child welfare who can show how to provide lots of kids with pretty good care at very good prices—comparable to the full cost, including administrative overhead and foster-parent payments, of foster care—as did orphanages of the past. Ed Shipman, founder of Happy Hills Farm on the plains of Texas, and Phyllis Crain, head of The Crossnore School deep in the mountains of North Carolina, are showing the way. Visit these modern-day orphanages and be prepared to be wowed. The reality of these homes for hundreds of kids is "unbelievable," but not in the way that Mrs. Clinton suggested.

Mr. McKenzie, an economics and management professor at the University of California, Irvine, is the editor of "Home Away From Home: The Forgotten History of Orphanages" (2009).


Richard McKenzie

Libertarian economist who probably thinks there should be no public sphere at all...

Interestingly, a google search on him revealed 1999 a pro-orphanages piece of his showed up on the DLC website (DLC being the faction of the Democratic Party that politicians like Bill, Hillary, Gore, etc. come from.)

The Sam Walton reference was certainly a tell: like most libertarians it all boils down to $: deregulate everything, hush-hush about abuses by commerce, churches and the private sphere, only talk about abuses by government.

The fact that it's an op ed in Rupert Murdoch's rwnj WSJ Opinion Journal tells a lot about this person's agenda, which imo has nothing to do with "caring for the children". I would certainly like to read his new book, though, if anything, to see libertarian nostalgia on segregation-era orphan/bastard care.

The orphanage I was in was nothing short of HELL!

We worked like slaves, were beat like slaves too. We were punished for acts we never understood. No hugs, no tenderness, no love, just criticism as if we were to understand that we were nothing but the children of dsyfunctional families and deserved no better than the little that was slung at us. We were seperated from our siblings, rarely saw them except for an hour on Saturday afternoon. Worked 6 1/2 hours a day or were punished severely. Never saw a mop until I was out of the hell hole. It was done on hands and knees with an elderly woman standing over us telling us what useless pieces of humans we were and this would last for hours. They put 16-18 children in the care of women at least 65 years and older in charge of us. They used fear to control us. The suicide rate of my orphan siblings is alarming, the homosexuality is alarming. I attribute this to being seperated from the opposite sex learning to not trust the opposite sex. At the age of 7 my sister and I were locked in the dark on the attic steps overnight with all the bats you can imagine swarming overhead in a 100 or more year old building. The matron would make us stand naked as she read the Bible to us while the other 16-18 year old children laughed at us. Some were beat daily, others just occasionally. You just never knew when your turn was coming. You knew to not ask questions because that was backtalking. You knew to not let them see you cry because then you got a reason to cry later. I lived this life for 8 1/2 years and my adult life has sufferecd severely due to this orphanage you think is so wonderful. Oh don't get it wrong, I still succeeded but it was not due to anything any orphanage did. My drunk father loved me and never hit me. He just stayed drunk. My mother was uneducated. Why not fix that? There was nothing wrong with us. It was our parents that needed help and not having them did more damage than having them even with their problems would have. My mother today has never bonded with us after leaving the "home". She is very uncaring. I do not remember her being this way before the years we were taken from her.
I am glad your years at an orphanage made you such a success and that you are teaching the world all the wrong lessons especially with respect to this matter.

Pound Pup Legacy