Freaking out over Freakonomics

by guest contributor Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

I was dumbfounded to read Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt’s response on his NYT blog to a reader’s question about the economic ramifications of international adoption (thanks to durgamom on resist racism for bringing this to my attention). I’ve commented on Levitt before in this post.

Q: What is your opinion on how international adoption affects the economy, race and class divisions, and the widening income gap within the U.S.? What do you think of the argument that children are “readily available for adoption” in the U.S., and, further, that adoption is marketed as a product with benefits?

A: I don’t think international adoption affects the economy in any meaningful way. We are talking about very small numbers of children being adopted from foreign countries into the U.S. each year – perhaps 20,000 children total, compared to the 3 million children born each year in the U.S. Adoption does, however, profoundly affect those families that adopt. My life has been completely changed because of the two daughters my wife and I adopted from China.

You’re right that some people in the U.S. really don’t like foreign adoption. Some have argued that it is a form of subtle racism, in that parents like me will go to China to adopt, but won’t adopt a black child here in the U.S. This is a complex issue – far too complex for me to discuss in all its richness here. But let me at least explain some of the thinking underlying my own decision to adopt from abroad. The first factor was that our son, Andrew, had just died. We were not emotionally prepared to navigate the U.S. adoption scene, which is full of uncertainty for adoptive parents for two reasons: 1) the relative scarcity of healthy but unwanted babies being put up for adoption since the legalization of abortion; and 2) the emphasis on birth parent rights.

We did give some serious thought to adopting either a black child domestically, or adopting from Africa. It turns out that African adoption is extremely complicated, as Madonna discovered the hard way. Ultimately, my own view was that the identity issues faced by a black child raised by white parents would be too difficult. Some of my academic research with Roland Fryer has made clear to me the stark choices that black teens, especially boys, have to make about “who they are.” As a parent, I was not willing to take the chance on loving and raising an adopted child, only to know that when he became a teenager he would have to face the choice of being “black” or “white,” and that either choice would be very costly for him (and also for me). That same sort of racial “all or nothing” choice is not at play for Asian youths in our society.

First of all, Levitt doesn’t really respond to the majority of the reader’s question. He only tackles the economy part in terms of how it affects the overall US economy. Using the average fees for the most well known and respected adoption agency in my state, if adoptive parents paid an average of, say, $20,000 – $25,000 a child then those 20,000+ children adopted from other countries last year add up to $400,000,000 – $500,000,000. We know that not all of this money stays in the United States economy. So, granted, Levitt is correct that this sum is pretty insignificant in terms of how it affects the overall US economy. If you calculate the 108,006 children adopted internationally from 2002 – 2006 at an average of $20,000 per child, that pumps in $1,080,060,000 that pays for adoption workers and adoption agencies. However, Levitt doesn’t mention that the overall “adoption industry” expands way beyond the singular item of agency fees. There are all the post-adoption services provided by agencies, books, those damn t-shirts, culture camps, therapy, trainings, etc. Considering that in 2000, the adoption industry generated 1.5 billion dollars* and prices have only risen exponentially, I argue that Levitt is minimizing the economic impact because, like many of us, it appears unseemly to talk about children in terms of a financial spreadsheet.

Levitt’s response to the next part of the reader’s question really begins to veer away into his own personal rationalizations.

Levitt begins by answering What do you think of the argument that children are “readily available for adoption” in the U.S with:

We were not emotionally prepared to navigate the U.S. adoption scene, which is full of uncertainty for adoptive parents for two reasons: 1) the relative scarcity of healthy but unwanted babies being put up for adoption since the legalization of abortion; and 2) the emphasis on birth parent rights.

First, I couldn’t help but react to the blatant judgmental attitude towards first parents. I really really really really dislike the statement healthy but unwanted which is really really really old-school talk. Children relinquished for adoption are not always unwanted. Many women and men choose or are forced to relinquish for more reasons than can be outlined in this post.

Also, the fact that he is afraid of birth parents rights and uses that terminology suggests that he doesn’t want the messy business of dealing with an open adoption or any chance that birth parents might sabotage his parental authority.

It’s also just plain naive to believe that just because his daughters were born in China that 1) they are completely free of health issues (especially if they were in an orphanage) and 2) that they were somehow more “wanted” than a child relinquished in US (guess he believes the only reason for relinquishment is a heavy-handed government population control policy) and 3) that his child’s Chinese parent(s) won’t ever want to have contact.

At any rate, both of these reasons that Levitt uses to argue why he didn’t adopt domestically seem to emphasize a consumer-based perspective. Classic supply and demand: a lack of supply on the “scarcity of healthy but unwanted babies” and the demands of birth parents vs. adoptive parents.

By the time I got to Levitt’s response to race and class, I was shaking my head at the multiple assumptions he makes and how clearly he is settling down in his comfy white privilege. The response to the question “how international adoption affects race and class divisions, and the widening income gap within the U.S.” was:

As a parent, I was not willing to take the chance on loving and raising an adopted child, only to know that when he became a teenager he would have to face the choice of being “black” or “white,” and that either choice would be very costly for him (and also for me). That same sort of racial “all or nothing” choice is not at play for Asian youths in our society.

Okay, you all know what I’m going to say here. Repeat after me: Asian adoptees are NOT THE OTHER WHITE MEAT.

While I’m glad he recognizes that adopting a black child has significant racial meaning, it’s clear that Levitt is buying into the stereotype that Asians are less “ethnic” and therefore do not have to “choose” whether to be “yellow” or “white.” I guess Levitt missed out on asking me or other Asian Americans about whether or not that is true. Or has he been hanging with the Asian American community as of late? Maybe he knows something about my people that I don’t. Or is he merely more comfortable in perpetuating stereotypes about Asians which superficially seem more along the “model minority myth?” Mr. Levitt, I think you should educate yourself and go read this post or this post.

As for the question, What do you think of the argument . . . that adoption is marketed as a product with benefits?

While this seems like it would be of interest to an economics professor since it’s dealing with a market economy issue, Mr. Levitt apparently decided it wasn’t worth answering. He also didn’t respond to the impact of the ever-widening gap between those who can afford to adopt children from foreign countries versus those who can’t. This is definitely becoming a class issue because of the sheer enormous expense of adopting internationally which continues to increase each year. Which is too bad, because I for one would have been interested in his response.

Overall, I give Mr. Levitt’s answer a D+ considering he really doesn’t address the multiple economic-related questions about international adoption. In terms of dealing with the racial realities of adopting a child from China? I give the professor an F. I think he missed the point completely. I would suggest he read the article cited below from Outsiders Within for extra credit.

*Cited by Kim Park Nelson in Shopping for Children in the International Marketplace in Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption by South End Press (2006) p. 94.