Bring Back the Orphanages?

Like a nightmare from the past, the notion of government-run orphanages is the talk of Washington and the media—including the cover of this week's Newsweek. It all started when some Republicans proposed state-run orphanages as part of welfare reform. Oddly, conservatives who shouldn't want government to have power over our private lives are clamoring for these institutions. But state-run orphanages are a bad idea whose time is past. It's true that our welfare system is inefficient and immoral because it encourages unwed women to bear children. But that doesn't make a case for orphanages. Because orphanages wouldn't discourage child-bearing either. Irresponsible teenagers would still have kids and simply place them in orphanages instead of having them underfoot at home. Incoming Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich argues for orphanages as "an alternative that's good for the child and the mother." But who says it's good for the child? The history of orphanages early in this century is one of horror chambers. Or good for the taxpayer? Existing facilities, often efficiently run by private agencies like Boys Town, cost $30,000 to $50,000 per year per child. Just imagine what state-run facilities would cost. What's behind all these proposals are skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy now 30 percent for whites and almost 70 percent for blacks, and there aren't enough adoptive parents or foster homes. Understandably reformers are looking for some institutional quick-fix. But government-run orphanages are a cure as bad as the disease. Let us not forget that one of the first advocates of state-run orphanages was Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French intellectual of the late 1700s. And why not? He fathered a string of illegitimate children while he was the toast of the intellectual and social elite of Paris. Not wanting them to interfere with his social life, Rousseau put the children in orphanages where most died. Maybe to justify what he did, Rousseau wrote revolutionary books claiming the state should raise children to create a utopian society. His writings were intellectual fodder for the totalitarian regimes of this century. There is a direct line, you see, between personal irresponsibility and public tyranny. For when we fail in our private duties, the state steps in and only makes matters worse. In fact, when it comes to children, the historical record proves that the state not only can't rear children, but also destroys families. America does face a crisis of illegitimacy. Our welfare system is in need of radical reform. But the first reform we need is to eliminate programs that encourage illegitimacy. We should eliminate barriers to adoption . . . increase tax deductions for children in the home, including foster children. And we should restore social stigmas against illegitimate births. So I say, forget about state-run orphanages. I can't for the life of me understand pro-family conservatives who want children taken away from their mothers to be raised in costly government institutions. Institutions that would only make worse our tragic experiment in turning over to the government the responsibilities we should be bearing ourselves.


Chuck Colson



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