In this diary we’ll look at the concept of the child and how it fits into modern civic and economic society. When you think about what a child is today, think about how that concept varies by culture and how it has changed over time. I’m going to focus on the communitarian view of the child and family to discuss how and why the modern capitalistic society fails the family and child. We talk about how important family is, but we do we actually create policies that nurture the family and the children within it? As you read this diary, consider the issues in our current economic and political institutions and how our view of the child might evolve in the near future.

A History of the child

First, though, we need to look at how the concept of the child has evolved in the US. If you read a diary I wrote previously that used a very similar history of the child or you have a good understanding of this history, feel free to skip this section. However, in the the communitarian philosophy, history and context are important to our understanding of our economic and civic institutions. Our history helps define who we are and who we will be in the future as a nation.

We can’t really separate the concept of the child from how our foster system developed because the system affected children who lived in poverty or who were seen to come from homes with bad morals. Simply, how the State defines the rights of parents and children determines whether or not the State will allow parents to keep their children. But remember, this is only one history of the child. Our view of the child is much different than other cultures.

The view of childhood as a distinct age of development did not gain general acceptance until the early 1800's.  Our understanding of children prior to the 1800s depended upon an entirely different explanation of the child that essentially understood children as little adults that were supposed to mature as quickly as they could.  Before this gradual shift in society’s conception of the child, children from all classes were, at times, indentured to families where they lived, worked, and learned a trade. However, indenture was an especially common situation for orphans and children from poor families. In the nineteenth century, children could be placed into indenture by formal contract or through an informal agreement between the child’s parents and the home into which they were to be placed; or, public officials could place impoverished children into indenture in place of providing relief to the family–a common occurrence.  Frequently, children from all classes would be voluntarily placed into indenture by their parents at around age thirteen.  However, due to an emerging middle-class with a new attitude about childhood, by the early nineteenth century indenture became limited to children from only the poorest of families.

While public officials continued to indenture orphans and other children whose parents were unable to provide for them, these “parents” were forced to meet greater expectations as to the treatment of their apprentices.  In some states, indentured children were expected to be provided with three months of schooling every year.  By the twentieth century, indenture became almost unknown and was gradually replaced by other child welfare services initiated around 1850.

Between 1830 and 1860, charitable organizations, usually religious in nature, funded orphan asylums. During this period, orphan asylums became the most prevalent form of institutional care for dependent children. Often, these asylums placed children with families in the hope that they would acquire some type of trade, but by the late nineteenth century it had become more common for asylums to offer some type of training within the institution itself. In the 1880's, orphanages encountered heavy criticism and were replaced.

The 1853 founding of the New York Children’s Aid Society (CAS) heralded this new concept concerning dependent child care; it was founded with the assumption that children were best placed in rural homes rather than orphan asylums, or any other institution for that matter.  The founder of CAS, Charles Loring Brace, believed that urbanization, immigration, and Catholicism were modern day evils to be avoided at all costs. Therefore, “orphan trains” that moved children to farms, usually Protestant, as far away from the city as possible became illustrious.  Children were placed in CAS by orphan asylums, infant asylums, and by CAS agents that scoured the city streets in their search for street children without homes.

Significantly, the basic assumptions behind “placing-out,” the first well-known foster care program, and indenture were in direct variance.  Brace was placing-out children in an attempt to protect them from the urban environment and, often, from the values of their own parents, whereas indenture was intended to teach children skills and prepare them for adulthood.  In the placing-out system, older children were expected to contribute a considerable amount of work to the farm, while younger children were to be treated as members of the family.

One of the devastating critiques of the child welfare system follows:

The modern child welfare system has always made use of the foster care system . . . Agencies devoted to the rescue of children were modeled after the animal rescue societies, and a common outcome of the investigation of complaints was placement in an institution.  Children from these institutions were often placed with surrogate families, generally farm families, who used the children as laborers.  The result was a system of free care for children who had been taken away from their families, largely because of the poverty their families faced (Levesque, 3-4).
Another, more indicting, view of the placing-out system contends:
This program was established by Charles Loring Brace in 1853, with the goal of disposing of vagrant children.  Children were rounded up from the city streets and obtained from institutions and shipped to rural communities in the West or South, where committees of citizens arranged for them to be taken in by families.  A description of the procedure makes it sound like a slave auction, and it was generally conceded that the motives of the families with whom the children were placed had more to do with self-interest than Christian charity.  Though many of these children were not orphans, they were permanently severed from their biological families (Focus, 23).
Because of this program, an estimated 100,000 children from New York City alone were transported from their homes between 1854 and 1929, and by 1923 thirty-three other states had adopted similar programs.

In an effort to ensure that children were not valued exclusively for their capacity to work, Boston’s Temporary House for the Destitute began to make payments to families that accepted children into their homes.  At the same time, placement agencies began to scrutinize their boarding-homes much more closely than they had done previously through placing-out.

The argument over institutional care versus home placement, along with the complications created by boarding-out, continued to be controversial for at least forty years.  A turning point in this debate came in 1899 when the National Conference of Charities and Corrections publicly embraced home placements as the best choice of placements for dependent children.  Still, a systemic transformation came slowly.  Finally, even in the South, where child welfare lagged considerably behind the rest of the nation and where orphan asylums still held more children than placing out into the 1920's, foster care, as boarding-out became known, steadily increased as it became closely tied to the juvenile justice system.

As government became involved in child welfare, first at the state level and then at the federal level, foster care placements began to increase drastically.  In 1915, California, an early trend-setter in foster care, began requiring placement agencies to undergo licensing and regulating procedures.  By the 1920's, boarding-out had largely replaced placing-out and California had begun making payments to foster homes, even those run by private agencies, when the children had been committed to foster care by a juvenile court.  

This system was working so well with dependent children that soon even delinquent children were being placed in foster homes.  In the 1920's, CAS terminated their “orphan trains.”  Because of the creation of Aid to Dependent Children (ADC, later known as AFDC) and the Social Security Act in 1935, families that would have once turned to orphan asylums or placing-out were able to keep their children at home as the government began to fund them through these new programs.  Also, as state involvement in child welfare increased, children who were removed from their homes were much more likely to be placed in foster care rather than institutions.  In 1960, nationwide, at least twice as many children were placed in foster homes as were placed in institutions, and by 1968 that ratio had exceeded three to one.

In 1962, an article called “The Battered Child Syndrome” was released and spurred a flurry of newspaper articles on child abuse.  This phenomenon, along with an increase in federal funding, caused a dramatic increase in the foster care population from 1962 through 1977.  During this period, children in foster care also became eligible for AFDC payments and by 1976 more than 100,000 children were involved in AFDC foster care.

In 1980, Congress passed The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act.  It’s likely that Congress passed this act in response to an increasing concern about the expanding  use of foster care in the 1970's.  With the AACWA, Congress had essentially federalized the foster care system and attempted to attain their goals by regulating the state’s role in foster care and linking compliance with their guidelines to federal funding.  In addition, the wording of the act ensured that parents would be given every chance to reunify with their children.  As a result, states gave parents multiple chances to meet state guidelines and children eventually began to languish in foster care.   

The resulting increasing movement for the reform of foster care often pointed to growing evidence that the rights of biological parents were considered to be far more important than the rights, or even the safety, of children.  This philosophy seemed to be guided by the prolonged attempts at making “reasonable efforts” to reunify families.

In New York’s approach to “positive tox” babies, those born with drugs in their system, such children are only removed from their parents home if there is evidence of continued drug abuse after the birth of the baby. However, this state directive has only been in effect since 1990.  Prior to this date, drug-addicted mothers were assumed to be unfit parents and they automatically lost custody of the child.  Does this policy give priority to the rights of the parent and discount a child’s right to a safe environment?

The Communitarian Critique of Modern Society

There are many forms of communitarianism, but all depend on a “thicker” view of the individual.  This thicker view of the individual attaches greater importance to personal responsibility and lesser to personal rights. The individual is viewed as embedded in his/her community and as a resource for family and community. It is expected that the individual will act in society’s best interest.

Perhaps a radical communitarian view might be provided by The Vermont Papers. The authors believe that political decisions should be made at the lowest level and with the greatest range of citizens as possible. In essence, they are arguing for human-scale institutions. They believe that small-scale democracies are necessary because, as with welfare policies, when policies are implemented on a large-scale, citizens lose the feeling that they bear some responsibility for the welfare of others. In their view, democratic participation creates a “warrior-citizen” and enhances individual virtue. These authors would combine a careful decentralization of government activities with an expansion of democratic processes. In their view, “face to face” politics is the cure for the passions of factions.

The first major critique to our current philosophical construct of society is our understanding of the individual as isolated from society and as starting life with a clean slate as if their history and location in society has no meaning. Essentially, the first criticism of liberalism are the concepts of liberalism itself; is there any real value to an individual that is reduced to maximizing his or her utilities and rights in a system devoid of any history, context or common values?

The second major critique of liberalism is that it does not accurately represent real life. How can we see ourselves as strangers to each other in our communities when we have family and friends in our communities. We establish ties to our communities when we attend church or register our children in a sports program and coach the team. All of these relationships can’t be explained as merely exchanges in the market-place, can they?

The Communitarian Critique of The child in Modern Society

While there are a significant number of works that consider Communitarianism, very few include a consequential look at the family or the child.  The Missing Child in Liberal Theory provides a valuable discussion on the role of society, the family, and the child within the context of Communitarianism. So, this section relies heavily on this work.

Integral to this book is Polanyi’s claim that “a self-regulating market demands nothing less than the institutional separation of society into an economic and political sphere” (71).  By this, Polanyi is asserting that economic activity ought to be an integral component of society–a function of the whole society–and not a function apart from the rest of society as it became with the implementation of the self-regulating market. This concept is the backbone of this book.

If we observe today’s society, O’Neill argues that it is largely a “duty-free society.”  Instead, we should consider our society to be our “civic commons.”  Whenever events in society shock us, O’Neill argues that this emotion is the result of the marketization of our social endowment.  These social endowments include family life, childhood, health, and knowledge.  Street crime, single-family poverty, and unemployment, among other social ills, are due to the “marketization and defamilization of the social bond.”  The political contract assumed under “market-liberalism” is virtually broken due to the public concern and confusion about the imbalances between “rights and duties” and “private greed and public scarcity,” and what can be achieved through self-interest and what can be achieved through public associations. Our society is crumbling around us, in this view, and we feel powerless to intervene.

In the covenant view of society, civic society is the glue that binds the economy to citizenship.  While the welfare state is essential to society, it must be reshaped in a way that eliminates the inequalities between families on the opposite ends of the scale. We must eliminate the justice gap. This philosophy considers the history and the context of events and, consequently, asks that we form our civic institutions in a manner that allows for the formation of the “reciprocities of trust” that are essential to our daily lives and that form a cohesive society. We should devise social policies in a way that recognizes the common condition that we all, young and old, male and female, experience in our search for a common peace and a common justice. The welfare state should bind us together in a common thread that allows us a life enriched by civility and care.

The welfare state discussed above should be based on a common understanding of reciprocity because it is through civic institutions that we should “absorb” this concept and it is one that both endows and indebts every citizen. We must embed reciprocity in these civic institutions because the market breed’s moral strangers and a system of common care must be established that does not exclude anyone. And, we must ground this reciprocity in a longitudinal understanding of inter-and intragenerational justice where we are the stewards of the future.     

In this book, we are given an extremely stark view of the family within what O’Neill calls the liberal contract theory. He comprehends this philosophy as envisioning a child born with a tabula rosa, or clean slate, where the only discussion surrounding this child originates from within an individual rights discourse that recognizes the indivisibility of the child as the only limit upon the family. Simply, members of the family are held together by “individualized membership in consensual and revisable contacts.” In essence, O’Neill is disturbed by what he views as an ahistorical view of family—where a child is perceived as being conceived as if two persons had dissociated themselves from family and society. This is a violation of what O’Neill calls the family covenant.

To understand the seriousness of the family covenant to O’Neill, one must see it in his own words:

The most sacred principle in the founding of human institutions is the covenant principle that the family is the passage from one family to another, from age to age, Violations of this covenant are violations of intergenerationality over and above the individual injury in sexual seduction.  All other crimes derive their repulsiveness from the degree to which they similarly incapacitate social exchange— whatever their harm to persons and property. . . .  Such a covenant exceeds the sciences of sociology, psychology, economics, and politics because it furnishes the pre-contractual ground of all our contracts.  There is nothing metaphysical about the family covenant. [emphasis in original]
The passage above clearly illustrates the hierarchy of collective injury over individual injury.  Within this context, divorce is identified as more harmful to the family and to society than it is to the couple directly involved in the divorce.  This is due to the loss of family resources that secures intergenerationality. In this view, family is based upon intergenerational piety rather than on a marital contract.

The child must be considered as a political figure, but not from the child-rights standpoint. In fact, we should appreciate the child within the longitudinal structure of the family, and from our own intergenerational commitment, as invalidating the moral grounds of the market. Child risk stems from family inequalities and an intergenerational risk “whose injustice we believe can only be reduced and removed by a covenant of care between families, communities, and welfare-state agencies” must be acknowledged.  

The community and not the individual should be our point of origin when considering policy decisions. Moreover, the family should be considered the nucleus of society, and thus, the focus for policy creation. Market society is worse than merely the wrong direction for our society, it is morally reprehensible. It creates a situation where families, and more specifically children, are placed in direct competition with each other and, within this framework, some families are better able to compete than others. In this setting, the socioeconomic status of families and children are not controlled by equal opportunity or by a presumption of equal access to labor markets.

Newt Gingrich On the child

"It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid," said the former House speaker, according to CNN. "Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they'd begin the process of rising."

What makes this quote so interesting to me, is that it reveals so much about Newt Gingrich’s views on the economy and the role of the child within it.

In Regulating the Poor Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward argue that government has been a source for welfare only in response to overwhelming demands for such relief in times when economic stresses displaced many workers.  They also see the poor as being blamed for their condition during our progression to a (semi)welfare state. Piven and Cloward even suggest that unemployment insurance and old age pensions in the West maintain the poor (if they have a job where we classify them as eligible for these benefits) at such low levels that they might properly be seen as another form of relief. Piven and Cloward explain that the public welfare system is the same as “relief-giving” in the United States. They understand public assistance to be secondary to the larger economic and political spheres and mainly designed to reinforce work.    
In the quote above, Newt is arguing both the view that the poor are to blame for their situation and that the State needs to teach the work ethic to children in poor families. Not only is Newt reinforcing the concept that the market is the best arbiter of goods in society, he is also espousing a moral prescription on how the government should “fix” the children of the poor. Astonishingly, Newt seems to be moving backwards towards a definition of the child as a miniature adult. He also appears to believe that we can pull the children out of the context of their family and his or her culture with no negative consequences.

Some of us also might remember that during the welfare reform debates in the 90s, Newt proposed pulling children from their homes and building orphanages with the money saved from welfare benefits that would be paid to their single mothers.  If you think that his ideas are universally derided, think again:

“He has a good point, but he says it in a way that many people find offensive," says Haskins, a former Republican congressional staff member and author of Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. There is strong data that shows the lifelong benefits of learning the work ethic at an early age, Haskins says, from better pay to personal stability.  
The child in the Future

If we consider the quotes from Gingrich above, the communitarian critics of current society are both right and wrong–and by the way, I’m not the first to say this. This is a common critique of communitarianism. We do talk about our society as if the individual is disconnected from society and we do very often write policy as if it is amoral; however, the moral underpinnings of the individuals, institutions and PACS writing our laws are integral to the moral philosophies behind our laws. The battle is not over whether our laws are based upon the individual or the community; they are actually over what “community” is writing our laws.

We might all feel relieved when we see Democrats being elected to our national political institutions. But we also need to look more closely at our Congressman, Senators and Presidential candidates to see what “community’ they belong to, or rather, the moral underpinnings of their views. I think we can all agree that just because a candidate has a D next to there name that it does not necessarily follow that they belong to the same “community” as ourselves on every issue as we might believe they do.

After President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform legislation in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it,” many highlighted this “common sense” solution and criticized progressives for opposing the bill. Soon after passage, politicians and the media said it had not caused the downsides that activists had predicted, ignoring that the law had not been fully implemented. But troubling reports soon emerged. [Snip]

Today, a decade after implementation, the Clinton-Republican “bipartisan” welfare law is a failure. As unemployment has doubled since 2007 and the number of people receiving food stamps has skyrocketed by 40%, the welfare caseload has risen only 10% — a clear indication that the nation’s poorest families are not receiving welfare grants due to the restrictive time limits imposed by the 1996 law.

Ask yourself: if the federal government allowed states to put time limits on food stamps, would those numbers have gone up 40%? Or would we have even more kids on the streets begging for alms?

In a talk that seemed aimed at liberals who have accused him of betraying poor children, the president said he and Congress can correct what's wrong with this bill, but they could not afford to miss the chance to fix a system that does not reinforce the values of work and family.

    Alexander, Jr., R. & Alexander, C. (1995). The impact of Suter v. Artist M. on foster
care policy. Social Work 40,4, 543-548.
    Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton.  Habits of the Heart:  Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Harper and Row: New York, 1986.
    Bryan, Frank and John McClaughry, The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale. Chelsea Green Publishing Company: Chelsea, Vermont, 1992.
    Child abuse and neglect statistics. (April 1998). National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. [online].  Available: http://childabuse.org/.... (February 15,1999).
    Etzioni, Amitai.  Rights and the Common Good:  The Communitarian Perspective.  St. Martin’s Press: New York. 1995.
    Governor’s Office on Children. (1998). A place to call home: A report on Arizona’s children placed in out-of-home care. Phoenix: Governor’s Office on Children.
    Hacsi, T. (1995). From indenture to family foster care: A brief history of child Placing.  Child Welfare,74, 164-167.                                   
    Hollinger, J.H. (1998). A guide to the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 as amended by the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996.  Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association.
    Levesque, R. (1994). The failures of foster care reform: Revolutionizing the most Radical blueprint. Maryland Journal of Contemporary Legal Issues,6(1), 14-19.
    O’Neill, John.  The Missing Child in Liberal Theory:  Towards a Covenant Theory of Family, Community, Welfare and the Civic State.  University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1994.
    Popple, P. R., & Leighninger, L. (1999). Social work, social welfare, and American society (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
    Polanyi, Karl. (1944). The Great Transformation. New York: Rinehart. Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. Second edition, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.   
    Suter v. Artist M. (1992).  112 S. Ct. 1360.
    Wang, C-T. (1997). Current trends in child abuse reporting and fatalities: The results of the 1997 fifty state survey. National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. [online]. Available: http://childabuse.org/.... (February 15,1999).
“What We Know About the Effects of Foster Care.”  1992.  Focus 14, no. 2: 22-34.

Originally posted to Anti-Capitalist Meetup on Sun Mar 18, 2012 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism.

Your Email has been sent.