Ms. Boudreaux is a research associate at Clemson University’s Center for Policy & Legal Studies.
According to statistics, there were 442,000 children in foster care in the United States in 1992, nearly 50 percent more than in 1985. Critics argue that this system is grossly unfair to children, keeping them bound for years in a legal limbo where parental rights are neither terminated nor relinquished, and where social workers have disincentives to move children out of foster care. Despite the criticisms leveled at the current foster-care system, when Newt Gingrich suggested that some children might be better cared for in orphanages his idea was decried as a draconian throwback to a crueler time. Was it really?
In The Home, economist Richard McKenzie argues from personal experience that orphanages aren’t such bad places after all. This coming-of-age memoir chronicles McKenzie’s eight years during the 1950s in a North Carolina Presbyterian orphanage. Although not designed as a public-policy piece, the book nonetheless has a strong public-policy message. For some children, life in a well-run institution may be preferable to foster care or life in a dysfunctional, abusive family. The great virtue of The Home is that by telling his own story, and those of fellow orphans at The Home, McKenzie makes a compelling case for the institutional care of some children.
McKenzie’s saddest story is of how he got to The Home. Like most other children at the orphanage he was not a full orphan—he did have one living parent, his father. But his father drank heavily and had no steady job. After McKenzie’s mother committed suicide in 1952, his maternal aunts fought his father for legal control of him and his older brother. The aunts won the battle but decided they couldn’t care for the young boys (then 10 and 12), and so sent them to The Home, where they joined some 200 other children.
Is McKenzie sorry that his aunts made this decision? The answer is an unequivocal no. Indeed, McKenzie attributes much of his later success in life to his experiences at The Home. (He is an accomplished economist who holds a chaired professorship at the University of California, Irvine.) Far from bemoaning his life as a poor orphan, McKenzie argues that The Home was probably the best thing that could have happened to him—given the alternatives.
McKenzie credits The Home with giving him the bounds that he needed, instilling in him discipline and a desire to succeed, and providing support to start down that road to success. (The Home, for example, paid for his undergraduate education.) Of course, The Home was not perfect. McKenzie concedes that it could not provide him with the kind of emotional support offered by a loving family: “[i]f there is one thing we missed at The Home, it was having access to the type of person our mothers could have been.” But in his eyes, it was vastly better than life with his father or life on the streets.
Over and over again McKenzie asks readers to consider how children of broken and abusive homes are best cared for. Is a child’s experience in the current system really better than life at The Home? Throughout his account, McKenzie is careful to remind his readers that for children in situations like his, life was necessarily a choice between imperfect alternatives. There was no fairy godmother waiting to carry McKenzie and his brother off to a perfect family. Instead, the choice was between a dysfunctional family and institutionalized care. McKenzie convincingly argues that for him and for many of his peers at The Home, the orphanage offered more and better possibilities for a satisfying future than did relatives or foster care.
To his credit, McKenzie does not sugarcoat life at The Home. His days were full of hard work in fields, milking cows, working in orchards, doing school work, playing sports, and going to church. He had little free time and little in the way of material comforts: no shoes in the summer, too few blankets in the winter. When the children’s workload increased one fall, McKenzie was forced to sell his favorite pet goat, a combination friend and confidante. Some of the employees at The Home were racist, and some were downright insensitive to the children. But others were wonderful people who became role models for McKenzie and his friends.
McKenzie wants his readers to understand why an orphanage can be a refuge and a source of inspiration and why the overwhelming majority of those who spent their childhoods there can look back on them with fondness and gratitude. At the end of the book readers do understand just that.
This makes the final episode of McKenzie’s book all the more discouraging. He returned to The Home in 1994 for an annual homecoming. No longer a residential orphanage, The Home now caters to severely troubled children who stay for weeks, not years. The annual cost of caring for each child now averages over $45,000, compared with less than $3,000 (in 1995 dollars) while he was in residence. The staff-to-student ratio today is 1.5 to one. The students no longer work in the fields, or do other chores, because as one administrator said, we can’t afford to pay them. Are these children better off than McKenzie and his fellow students?
It is impossible to separate the story of McKenzie’s personal triumph over adversity from the story of The Home’s role as a refuge and a source of inspiration. This book demonstrates that positive alternatives to the current child-welfare system do exist. How sad that a place that did so much good for so many people was ruined by social theorists. However, it is a blessing that Richard McKenzie has reopened the dialogue about orphanages and children. Let us hope that his positive message will influence the crafting of today’s child-welfare policy.