June 15, 2014

MEGAN MCARDLE: The Adoption Turnaround:

These days, adoptable infants are so rare that parents wait years and pay tens of thousands of dollars to get one. What explains the change?

I know what you’re thinking: birth control; abortion; the end of the stigma against unwed motherhood. And those things undoubtedly played a part: immediately after Roe v. Wade, the number of adoptable white infants dropped sharply.1 But in fact, the change started well before that. By the end of World War II, when the stigma against unwed motherhood was still very high, demand for adoptable infants was already growing much faster than the supply.

What changed? Two things, I’d suggest: First, we became richer. The cost of feeding and clothing a child was no longer a terrifying burden, so people became more interested in adopting children who weren’t theirs.

Second, the value of child labor declined. People who adopted at the end of the 19th century were often looking for farmhands and junior household help. People who adopted in the middle of the 20th were looking for a child to love.

Obviously, those weren’t the only reasons: Social changes of all sorts mattered a lot. But this is also an economic story; as we got richer, we became more willing, and able, to take care of our nation’s babies. That’s a great story, and we should tell it more often.


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