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. Continue reading