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he greatest evil of all, [it] creates and perpetuates paupers, by accustoming all the children…to an easy, happy life.”
No, that isn’t Newt Gingrich getting Dickensian about welfare. The evil here is the almshouse, criticized by mid-19th-century Massachusetts officials as an agent of dependency. Almshouses ultimately fell from favor not because they were Disneylands but because, as Geraldine Youcha writes in Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present, they were “dreadful places” where kids shared one-room quarters with the sick, the aged, and the insane. With almshouses’ demise came orphanages, which for the first time separated children from destitute or ill adults. But orphanages, too, eventually were replaced by temporary foster care as the way to care for poor and/or abandoned children.
But as ethics-flouting author and former House Speaker Jim Wright keeps telling Gingrich, “what comes around goes around.” And American child care arrangements, by Youcha’s telling, are no exception. Although Minding the Children was written before the Republican takeover of Washington, the author might well have predicted the orphanage-revival movement the conservatives brought to town. “The pride of one generation had become the shame of another,” Youcha says. “And this pattern has been repeated again and again.”
Youcha’s sprawling survey of American child care covers everything from colonial-era apprenticeships—“part of a little-known tradition of men as nurturers”—to the more than 3,000 government-supported day care centers designed for children whose mothers worked in factories during World War II. But though Minding the Children is long on interesting detail—colonial women gave birth while sitting on their husbands’ laps, for example—it’s short on point of view. Positioning herself as a reporter and not a policy-maker, Youcha strenuously avoids recommending one child care arrangement over another.
Still, the book illuminates the current welfare and child care debates. Most notably, Youcha helps readers recognize how class and race bias distort public policy directed toward poor, minority children. In addition, her historical overview reminds us that an all-or-nothing approach to welfare reform—an orphanage-building boom or welfare as we know it—is counterproductive. Back when the “Great Society” might have been taken to mean ancient Greece, private charities and the government cared for poor and not-so-poor children in a variety of ways, some of which might be usefully resuscitated today.
Most of the children who filled 19th-century orphanages had at least one, and sometimes two, living parents—and these mothers and fathers weren’t all sick or unemployed. Rather, they were blacks and immigrants whose jobs as servants or sailors, for example, prevented them from caring for their children. Working single parents who did try to keep their children out of orphanages resorted to such desperate means as tying toddlers to table legs.
Such stories inspired Jane Addams to open Hull House in Chicago in 1889. An alternative to the orphanage, Hull House—and some hundred other settlements like it—provided free day care and occasional round-the-clock care for the children of mostly single immigrant workers. According to Youcha, the centers closed in the 1920s, partly because the new, “professional” field of social work deified motherhood and stressed family preservation, and partly because widows’ pensions, precursors to welfare, supposedly were generous enough to allow single mothers to stay home. (As for what impact this shift had on women, Youcha is characteristically ambivalent. Poor women who chose full-time motherhood over paid work probably lost clout within their families, she writes, but on the other hand, many mothers undoubtedly appreciated the chance to raise their own kids.)
How times have changed. In 1995, full-service day care centers sound like just the thing to get low-income women where welfare reformers want them: out of the home and into the work force. Yet although reformers expect welfare mothers to work, they don’t want to provide the highly subsidized, comprehensive day care that low-wage workers (and former welfare recipients invariably fall into that category) need to keep jobs.
Such stinginess wouldn’t have surprised Jane Addams. Critics of her time charged that Hull House and its progeny “encourage fathers to desert or default on their financial responsibilities.” Today, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the author of a welfare reform proposal recently discarded as too moderate, says that “if you provide day care for everybody, you have government being your entire support network, and you’re not relying on the family anymore. Governments shouldn’t raise children.” The question, then, is who should?
One answer, according to the Republican “Contract With America,” is the orphanage system. And although recent surveys show that the public opposes sending droves of low-income children to orphanages, that the possibility could be floated at all suggests just how alienated American voters are from welfare recipients (equated as they are with urban “underclass” blacks, despite data showing that group comprises only a fraction of the welfare population). Because we at some level view welfare mothers as most emphatically unlike ourselves, we can more easily imagine spiriting their children away.
Youcha doesn’t address such concerns in politicized terms. Yet she does show how a similar sentiment allowed for dramatic separations of immigrant families, who despite being held up today as paragons of hard-working virtue were once stigmatized as drunken, dangerous, and lazy. Between 1854 and 1929, child welfare officials transported more than 200,000 poor immigrant children from East Coast cities to Midwestern farming towns on what were called “Orphan Trains.” “Wanted, Homes for Children; Distribution will take place at the Opera House,” read one notice heralding a train’s arrival in Troy, Mo., in 1910. Youcha interviewed an Orphan Train veteran who remembered the song she had sung “to melt the hearts” of her prospective parents: “If I only had a Home Sweet Home, someone to care for me/Like all the other boys and girls, how happy I would be!”
The thought of a little girl begging for parents might make readers cringe, but Youcha isn’t terribly disturbed by the Orphan Trains. Giving up a child wasn’t so radical in the 19th century, she writes, when the Freudian exaltation of continuity of care was still a “luxury of the middle class.” Plus, she says, the measure of immigrant parents’ love often was their willingness to push their children toward a better life.
Still, the author acknowledges that wrenching separations occurred, despite the “convenient illusion” among child advocates that poor parents’ attachment to their children was more “casual” than middle-class parents’. Here’s how an official from the New York Children’s Aid Society described removing motherless Maggie and her two sisters from their home: “Their father was drunk. Their poor bodies were covered with filth and their hair had to be closely cut [because of lice].” In contrast, a now elderly Maggie recalled that, “My father was holding our little sister on his lap and crying….He knew he would never see us again.” Orphanages and other arrangements that irrevocably severed family ties weren’t discredited until the Depression, when the new, “worthy” poor (described by one official as “young, intelligent, cultured, well trained and eager to work”) inundated child welfare agencies.
Despite her recognition of racism and classism throughout the history of orphanages, Youcha believes the institutions successfully raised a fair number of children. And in today’s world, she certainly wouldn’t argue with the notion that severely abused and neglected children, a disproportionate number of whom live in black neighborhoods ravaged by drugs and violence, would be better off in institutions than with their parents.
The irony is that Congress is considering orphanages for children whose parents refuse to honor welfare-to-work requirements when juvenile courts and children’s agencies don’t even swiftly and permanently remove abused and neglected kids from their homes. (The Brookings Institution’s John DiIulio recommends placing such brutalized children into new, community-run orphanages, essentially urban versions of Israeli kibbutzim.) The child welfare bureaucracy is not only overworked, underfunded, and short on suitable placements for abused children, but as Youcha notes, it’s stuck in the foolish Depression-era paradigm that says family preservation is all good, and breakup all bad.
For parents who are fighting the good fight, trying to nurture their children and work a low-paying job, our country’s leaders should stop acting like public day care is un-American. No, it wouldn’t be free, and neither would there be enough Hull Houses for every child. Yet when the country was faced with a World War II labor crisis, and 1.5 million women with children under 10 surged into the work force, the state and federal governments managed to open 3,000-plus full-service day care centers.
Youcha suggests that WWII child care centers should serve as a touchstone for what’s possible today. After all, if Republicans and Democrats alike believe that welfare dependency is one of the country’s biggest crises, and if they want to put welfare mothers to work, they need to face the obvious: that women earning $680/month—minimum wage—can’t afford day care, even at the rock- bottom price of $200. If public day care was good for Rosie the Riveter’s kids, it should be good for poor children today.