End of American Orphanages

This article is about the decline of orphanages after World War II. For more information about current proposals to bring back orphanages, see Arguments to Bring Back American Orphanages- An Introduction

Decline of American Orphanages

The American orphanage system began to decline after World War II, even though the American foster care system began to increase. There were several factors that led to these changes in post-WWII America. The first was the economic boom that followed after WWII. An economic boom meant more families had more money and less families were living in poverty. This meant less families were placing their children into the various state and federal government systems for the care of children. The increase in family funds also meant that more families were in a better financial position to become the foster families for foster children who had been placed in the state and federal childcare systems. The second reason for the decline of American orphanages during the post-WWII era actually comes from a conference that occurred in 1909. The conference, entitled “Conference on the Care of Dependent Children,” was held on January 25 and 26, 1909, in Washington, D.C. The conference, put together by President Theodore Roosevelt, consisted of the greatest experts of the day in the field of childcare. The experts at this conference determined that the best place for the raising of children was in a family setting. This recommendation of raising children in a family setting came alongside a recommendation from President Roosevelt that the congress pass a legislation to create a federal bureau dedicated to protecting the welfare of children in the United States. These two recommendations prompted congress to pass a bill in 1912 to create the United States Children’s Bureau. The Children’s Bureau then set out to build the American foster care system that we know today, based on the recommendations of the 1909 conference in Washington, D.C.

Foster Care

The personalized care that the children could potentially receive in a foster home was seen in a stark contrast to the perceived care that many Americans felt children were receiving in orphanages; especially since many orphanages were designed to house hundreds of kids. Psychologists at the Washington, D.C. conference argued that having so many children at these “institutions” ultimately became detrimental to welfare of each of those children. In today’s terms, this would be like having too many students in one classroom. It is believed that if there are too many students in one classroom, the teacher will be unable to give each child the attention that the child needs. This is the same problem that some believe existed in the orphanages; too many children in one orphanage meant that the adults in the orphanage could not provide the care to each individual child that was needed. After WWII, the American foster care system seemed to be the best way of addressing the issue of oversized orphanages.

Total Cost of Orphanages

The final issue that proved to be the end of American orphanages was the cost. In the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich proposed bringing back orphanages, many social and economic experts began to point out the money saved by switching to the foster care system that we currently have, versus the orphanage system that we used to have. The experts pointed out that the cost of a child per year in an orphanage, like Boys Town, was $36,500 to $48,000 per year and the cost of a child in the foster care system for one year ranges from $4,500 to $4,800. However, in the 1920s, the cost of a child in an orphanage was much lower at about $75 annually per child. The annual cost of a child in an orphanage began to increase during the Great Depression with the introduction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the first minimum wage laws. The new minimum wage laws meant that orphanages had to pay more money to their staff members. The new minimum wage laws also increased the cost of labor for the building and the maintaining of orphanages. This pushed the cost from $75 annually per child in the 1920s to $900 annually in 1948. In contrast, the annual cost of a child in the foster care system in 1948 was $760.