Graduates of Orphanages Have Done Well in Life

ECONOMIST Richard McKenzie has some characteristics of a typical orphanage graduate: He is well educated, has a job, and makes more money than most Americans. He's also happily married, and tells his four children how fortunate he was to be raised in an orphanage and not by his alcoholic and abusive parents.

He doesn't share the public image of orphanages. They are thought of as cold and loveless Dickensian institutions. When House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke favorably of orphanages last year, it prompted a sharp response. Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested the idea of reviving orphanages was "unbelievable and absurd." Child-care professionals dismissed it out of hand. "Nothing more than Hollywood illusions," said Ronald Feldman, dean of Columbia University's School of Social Work in New York. "Children raised in custodial homes are more likely to have serious problems adjusting to society when they leave."

Mr. McKenzie, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Irvine, took the trouble to find out whether that assertion is true, and whether his own happy time at a Presbyterian home for children in North Carolina was an exception. His research indicates most children had a positive upraising in an orphanage.

"There are thousands of people out there who benefited from their experience in orphanages and look back with fondness," he says.

To find that out, McKenzie surveyed 4,000 graduates from a dozen homes (for white children) across the country. Here are some results of his survey. They cover only 640 respondents who grew up in three homes. But, McKenzie says, the results don't differ much from nearly 2,000 responses from the broader survey, not yet fully analyzed. A telephone survey confirmed that those who didn't respond in writing had similar views.

Education. The "alumni" (as they call themselves), 44 years of age and older, surpassed the general white population, 40 years of age and older, at every rung of the educational ladder. For example, nearly 12 percent of the orphans had advanced degrees, 33 percent more than the less than 9 percent of white non-orphan Americans.

Unemployment. Only 1 percent of the alumni were jobless (among those not retired), compared with the 6 percent unemployment rate last year.

Household income. Orphans 44 to 65 years of age and older had incomes 16 to 75 percent higher than their counterparts, with the advantage growing with age.

Poverty. Three percent of the respondents were poor, compared with 5 or 6 percent for all whites 45 or older. Less than 3 percent had ever been on any form of public assistance, compared with 19 percent for the general public.

Prison. Slightly less than 1 percent of alumni has spent time in jail, less than the 1.6 percent of all white Americans.

Abuse. Less than 9 percent of respondents reported abuse of any form in their orphanages (less than 7 percent physical abuse, less than 4 percent mental abuse, 1 percent sexual abuse). No comparable measure could be found for the general population.

Emotional disorders. Only 13 percent of the orphans reported experiencing a mental or emotional disorder in their lifetimes sufficiently serious to warrant help of a psychologist or psychiatrist, and only a fifth of those related it to their orphanage experience. Between 20 and 28 percent of all Americans at some point experience some form of diagnosable psychiatric or addictive disorder, McKenzie says.

This indicates, he says, that the child-care ideologist's claim that maternal deprivation harms orphanage children is "absolutely hogwash." Most children in orphanages were already deprived of maternal love before entering the homes and got if anything more care in the homes, he says.

Other findings: More orphans, proportionately, vote than the general population; twice as many said they are "very happy"; 92 percent said they would prefer an orphanage to foster care, and 75 percent said they would prefer the orphanage to their own families (10 percent didn't know).

Asked why they were successful, the orphans responded with what McKenzie calls "an old story that can be summarized in a few words: moral and religious values, work ethic, responsibility, and encouragement."

As a boy, McKenzie worked as many as 50 hours a week on the orphanage farm, which helped feed the children.

McKenzie figures the annual cost of housing, recreation, supervision, and basic amenities per child at his Presbyterian home was less than $3,000 in 1995 dollars, $5,000 if education at the home's own school was included.

That compares with $3,000 to $4,000 paid to foster parents, which doesn't include the cost of administering the foster care system. The latter may bring the total to $17,000 per child, he says.

Orphanages started to dwindle in number after World War II. Most remaining homes provide care for children with severe emotional or behavioral problems and can cost $36,500 a child.

McKenzie has written about his personal orphanage experience in a new book: "The Home: A Memoir of Growing Up in an Orphanage" (Basic Books). He plans another book on various legal and economic issues (child-labor laws, regulation, cost, religious education, etc.) affecting reestablishment of orphanages.

"Orphanages might be the best, albeit imperfect, option for many of today's children who remain mired in ... difficult circumstances," McKenzie concludes. "Should we not consider bringing [orphanages] back - with reforms?"

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