Orphanages: Father Flanagan or Fagin?
A social history of the institution that spawned welfare
Orphanages. To some people, they call to mind warm memories of Spencer Tracy in "Boys Town," a bustling, happy place where parentless children were raised, educated and launched into productive lives. To others, orphanages evoke Dickensian hells where beleaguered children were underfed, overworked and treated more like inmates than wards of the state.
In "Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System," (Harvard University Press), Matthew A. Crenson, a professor of political science at The Johns Hopkins University, finds in the orphanage the institutional origins of today's welfare system, and a way of caring for abandoned, neglected or abused children that some welfare critics want to revisit.
"Serious reassessments of institutional care for children remind us that orphanages were not all bad," Crenson writes. "Under the right circumstances, for certain children, they could be rather good. ... Aside from the fact that different children have different needs, orphanages themselves were about as variable as families. A few were run like private prep schools or wholesome farm families. Others resembled prisons."
At their peak, Crenson says, there were 1,100 orphanages nationwide, housing between 150,000 and 200,000 children in a U.S. population of 100 million. Today, there are about the same number of children in some sort of orphanage care, but in a U.S. population of 270 million.
Orphanages began as private religious institutions to care for children unfortunate enough to lose their parents, and quickly became the focus of bitter sectarian divisions, Crenson says. Catholics formed orphanages in response to Protestant orphanages, and eventually local and state governments began placing abandoned children in these private institutions and paying the institutions to care for them.
"Today, everybody talks about race, class and gender," Crenson says. "The thing that gets left out is religion. We look back at history through those categories race, class and gender but, in fact, a lot of what was going on had to do with other things. It had to do with religion and ethnicity." An example was New York City's effort between 1916 and 1917 to inspect orphanages where taxpayers were paying $5 million a year to house homeless and indigent children. City inspectors found most of the institutions, despite their state certification, were in poor condition. Children slept in poorly heated buildings, ate bad food, and were given infrequent opportunities to bathe and inadequate health care. Catholic orphanages claimed the inspections were actually a veiled attack on their religion and responded by attacking the investigators in a series of pamphlets. Things got nasty. Priests were wiretapped, city officials indicted. It was an ugly display of the bitter sectarianism that attached to orphanages.
Crenson says it was this sectarianism that, in large part, led to the welfare system we have today. Many people believed that children would be better off remaining at home with their mothers, and the churches agreed; thus, the "mother's" or "widow's" pension was born.
"It was the one thing that everybody could agree on for getting around religious differences," Crenson explains. "The Catholics endorsed it. The Protestants endorsed it. Jews endorsed it. The welfare system began at least in part as a means to avoid religious conflict."
Ultimately, the mother's pension became Aid to Dependent Children, or ADC and what became generally known as welfare.
So, what would the people who campaigned for the mother's pension think of the current state of affairs with regard to welfare? Crenson thinks he has a pretty good idea, having studied their letters, notes and board meeting reports over 10 years of research.
"They'd be absolutely appalled," Crenson says. "The idea that the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients would turn out to be unwed mothers would have shocked them."
Still, Crenson says, if the people who campaigned against orphanages and for a system of welfare were around to see today's welfare problems, "They would be just as confused about what to do as we are."
Crenson is available for in-person and telephone interviews. A limited number of review copies of the book are also available, upon request. His telephone number is (410) 516-8452.
Go to Headlines@HopkinsHome Page