I am very sorry but there just isn’t room for both Lonnie and I here. Either someone has to find him a place to stay or I am not coming home anymore. It’s truly not Lonnie’s fault…I told the court the last time I was there that I am not a good mother because I just don’t have the proper feelings or something. It’s the winter of 1944, and cold is beginning to creep into the streets of New York City. Her son, Lonnie, has been in and out of the foster care system since infancy, and now, at age 13, he is returning home. A 28-year-old single mother, Marion works ten-hour shifts, and her commute is an hour each way.
I don’t have any future anyway and what little is left of my life I want to be as happy as I can make it, and it will be if I can go to work and come home to my peanut-sized room without any aggravation…There is no use saying I’ll have to adjust myself or lick my problems and not shy away. In fact, none of those high sounding phrases make the slightest impression on me. I’ll never be noble, sacrificial or unselfish.
For over a century, sociologists have attempted to counter conservative depictions of poverty with a sympathetic tale. During the progressive era of the early 1900s, cultural and psychological explanations closed the door on assumptions of biological inheritance of poverty.3 Social scientists argued that inadequate wages and housing, among other structural forces, twisted the actions and beliefs of the poor, producing “cultural pathologies” beyond the pale of the mainstream. But today, generational cycles of dependency, family disorganization, and criminal inclinations have been replaced with images of virtue and decency. Poor single mothers are at the heart of a social science framework that depicts America’s poor as “paragons of morality.”4 In their seminal book Promises I Can Keep, sociologists Edin and Kefalas argue that in a context where middle-class achievements are “little more than a pipe dream,” raising children offers an “alternative route to respectability.”5 Children are central to the “lower-class worldview” because they provide a tangible and attainable source of self-esteem. Even single mothers themselves see it not as a hardship or a mark of personal failure, but as something that “saved them.” They take pride in simply “being there.” There is both fact and fiction in this romantic image of single mothers. It is a difficult myth to maintain; in order to remain on their pedestal, they must continue to place their needs below those of everyone else. While countless prevail, there remain many women, like Marion and like my own mother, who fall short. They represent so many dishonored figures whose actions and decisions are sanitized, buried as family secrets.
The mother I knew raised me, alone and in poverty, for twelve years before her death. The perfect archetype of sociology’s self-sacrificing mother, she successfully fought to keep me in the same school when unstable housing caused frequent moves between districts. When I fell in love with a classroom pet, she bought me a guinea pig that endured caged nights behind a bush during our stays at a homeless shelter. When welfare reform required her to work, she submitted her body to a volunteer position sorting donated clothes for less than minimum wage. She was committed to providing me a sense of normalcy amid a life of poverty and uncertainty.
In her life before me, my mother is a person I do not know. In a faded, early 1970s photo, she stands before the camera, smiling. Behind her in the distance, a small blond child bends over digging into the sand of the North Carolina coast—she was my mother’s first daughter, born to a married man who refused to acknowledge paternity. Soon after this photo was taken, she met another man, had children by him—half-siblings who came long before me—and left her first child with neighbors, never to see her again.
Child abandonment is not the indecent secret of a handful of unprepared young women; it is a historically widespread survival strategy. During peaks in the 18th and 19th centuries, between 20 and 35% of all births in major European cities were abandoned at foundling homes.6 Rates varied according to factors as broad as economic decline and as granular as a shift in foundling home policy, but at its core, poverty and unwed motherhood remained the predominate causal factors. In 19th century Paris, for example, upwards of 50% of births were illegitimate; in 1830, 45% of all illegitimate children in Paris and Seine were abandoned to foundling homes.7 The majority of women who abandoned their children were domestic workers.8 Being childless was often a requirement for domestic work, and “shame was secondary to a mother’s survival as a motive for abandonment in Paris.”9
Meanwhile, in late 19th-century America, religious institutions for orphaned infants and children spread rapidly, each vying for the souls of future citizens—both here on Earth and in the afterlife. Contrary to popular understanding, most orphanages were filled with “half-orphans,” the children of impoverished, single mothers.10 Poor women, like Marion, commonly boarded their children after desertion by their husband or when employment conflicted with child care. At once, these agencies proffered legal child abandonment as an alternative to infanticide or neglect, while entrenching the dominant belief that breaking up poor families was the most efficient way to prevent poverty. During this period, the relationship between poverty and family breakup was unambiguous: before the creation of government welfare programs, parents who were too poor to support their children had to surrender them to institutions.
Marion was a black woman from the Bronx. She gave birth when she was just 14 years old. According to the case worker for the New York Children’s Aid Society, the “reputed” father was her second cousin, who left the city shortly before her son Lonnie was born. At five months old, she placed him in the New York Child Foster Home Service, intending that the separation be temporary. But months became years. Meanwhile, she started a new life—she married and had a second child, Felix. After being deserted a second time, she found herself in a small apartment, caring for her elderly mother and her second son, who suffered from rheumatic heart disease—a condition that emerged after an improper treatment of scarlet fever—leaving the young boy with painful, inflamed joints.
Having aged out of most care institutions accessible to non-white children, the court tried one last time to send Lonnie home at the age of 13. Upon his return, Marion became preoccupied with seemingly benign disruptions to her routine. “I have to get up much earlier to do everything before I leave the house and then, either Lonnie is in the bathroom when I want to go in to dress or else he is sitting by the table eating when I want to get to the sink, or in the closet all the chairs are taken when I want to sit down to put on my shoes, there is always something…” Before Lonnie came to live with her, she says,
I was content to work all day and come home to my [cramped] two-by-four [apartment] and relax in peace…[Now] I would rather chuck the whole business and not come home at all.
I can’t really care much what happens next…Whether I’m arrested for neglect or abandonment or whatever they call it, makes no difference to me.
Shrouded in secrecy, historical infanticide rates are insufficiently captured in the archives of poorhouses and the medical records of city coroners, but studies suggest that where child abandonment was restricted, women were more likely to revert to infanticide. Foundling homes emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries as efforts to curb infant homicide or abandonment to the elements. Where restrictive legislation emerged, as in the Russian reforms of 1891 which narrowed admission rules, many women who were refused services simply deserted their child elsewhere in the city.11 Similarly, in the post-civil war south, the color line restricted black women from abandoning their infants at foundling homes. This ensured the majority of black women were “held accountable” for raising their out-of-wedlock infants but, consequently, they committed infanticide at higher rates than white women.12 Policy not only has substantial control over whether a woman chooses to unburden herself of an unwanted infant, but also how. The choice to leave an infant to the elements, entrust it to a wet nurse, or placed it in foster or adoptive care is strongly shaped by social policy. By the 20th century, access to family planning and welfare caused a rapid decline in child abandonment, and the phenomenon disappeared as a social problem. In place of foundling homes and orphan asylums, a contemporary system of “unwilling abandonment” has surfaced—the foster care system.
Like the legal and willing forms of abandonment in the past, roughly half of children in the foster care system today come from families who have trouble meeting basic needs.13 Child maltreatment has been shown to increase with deepening poverty, higher rates of single motherhood, and, specifically, higher rates of single working mothers.14 The majority of foster care cases are neglect—inadequate supervision, shelter, food, medical access—evidence of a faltering social welfare system. Unless welfare aid is “immediate, sufficient, and of a long duration,” its main effect is “not to prevent child abandonment [or neglect], but merely to delay it.”15 In a growing number of states, the number of children in foster care now exceeds the number of children being cared for at home with the support of temporary assistance.16 In fact, falling AFDC/TANF welfare benefits were the second largest contributor to foster care growth between 1985 and 1999 (the largest was incarceration).17 Yet neglect is “not the mechanical result of poverty”; according to most statutes, neglect is not the failure to provide basic needs, but rather an unwillingness to provide basic needs when capable of doing so.18 Neglect is at once a product of poverty, and yet rarely isolatable to poverty in any direct sense. It is instead tightly bound to the many consequences of poverty—untreated mental illness and drug abuse, unstable work schedules, inadequate child care. It is hard to disentangle willful neglect from the ways in which poverty destabilizes daily life. In Marion’s case, we only see an exhausted woman who refused to soldier on.
A few years before Marion wrote her letter, Lonnie, then 11 years old, was brought before the court on allegations of delinquency. In the probation officer’s report, he “deserted his foster home on six different occasions within a period of ten days.” As a result, he was placed for nine weeks in a children’s shelter—a temporary facility meant to house children for no longer than a few days—in what journalists of the era described as “jails that were miscalled shelters.” There, he underwent “intensive study”; psychiatrists found him to be of “borderline intelligence” and “emotionally unstable.” He was unruly, threw temper tantrums, and stole small sums of money. He was committed to Wiltwyck, a predominately Black training school for preadolescent boys. Shortly upon arrival, he developed tuberculosis and spent the next two years at Sea View Hospital. Upon discharge, he was too old for Wiltwyck, and his applications to private child care agencies were rejected on the basis of his low IQ and behavioral problems. With no other place for him, the only alternative was the N.Y. State Training School at Warwick, “a locked and barred”19 delinquency institution with little structure, which judges avoided for all but the most serious cases of delinquency.
“There has long been an iron rule in American social welfare policy that conditions must be worse for the dependent poor than for anyone who works,” writes Nina Bernstein in The Lost Children of Wilder: The Epic Struggle to Change Foster Care. “The seldom-acknowledged corollary is that the subsidized care of other people’s children must be undesirable enough, or scarce enough, to play a role in this system of deterrence.”20 The fear is that high quality custodial child care would encourage many single mothers to unburden themselves of their children, leading to an overwhelming population of state wards. Lonnie’s journey from foster homes and temporary shelters to a delinquency institution captures the essence of a custodial system based on deterrence. At a time when the majority of unwed, white mothers placed their children for adoption, black unwed mothers, like Marion, were effectively banned from the system of adoption by exclusionary policies as well as color-sensitive legal sanctions.21 Lonnie’s experience reflects a system that sought to discourage the abandonment of undesirable children.
Today, a disproportionate number of children of color will find themselves in the vestiges of the system of care Lonnie experienced; one in nine black children and one in seven Native children children risk foster placement before the age of 18.22 Many will enter only temporarily, but those who age out of the system will do so with few prospects—few will graduate college or find employment,23 while many will become homeless24 or incarcerated.25 The resurrection of the foundling homes and orphanages of the 18th and 19th centuries that seek profit from the increase in abandoned or neglected children is not the answer to their problems. Rather, we need to look to the origins of all forms of child abandonment and neglect—poverty. Maternal heroism is a form of servitude thrust upon poor women in a declining welfare state. Single mothers at the margins do not need their values reengineered, nor their moral virtues applauded. They need a modicum of material stability and social dignity—guaranteed housing, income, medical care, child care. Child care itself comes in many forms: it includes public nurseries that operate at night and not simply during middle-class work hours; “mother’s helpers” who cook and clean while a parent recuperates from illness; summer camps that provide an emotional respite for weary parents; and access to behavioral, psychological, and drug rehab programs for children and mothers alike.
The agency pamphlets of early New York foster care agencies made pitiful appeals to philanthropists for donations by highlighting the immiserated conditions of single mothers’ lives. One document, published in 1939, claimed that “only a crib and mattress lay between foster home care for a child and a return to his own home.”26 But the cause and effect relationship between poverty and child abandonment is rarely so direct. Poverty is rarely a simple lack of resources. If the actions of Marion and of my own mother do not sound like economic survival, that is because the effects of poverty are complex and often impossible to unravel. Even Marion didn’t presume that a more comfortable existence would ensure the love of her first born: “If my place was larger and there was room where Lonnie would be out of the way sometimes, perhaps I would feel different but I can’t be sure of that even.” But then again, Marion had never known a more affluent life.
Representations of single mothers as martyrs to childhood poverty resonate with the moral schemata we have constructed for all mothers. It is much less indecent to imagine abandonment and neglect as the direct product of poverty—without a crib, a mother cannot bring home an infant. An uncomplicated framing of the relationship between poverty and neglect makes the solutions neat and clear. It is harder to rationalize the tangled web of poverty, maternal expectations, and the quest for autonomy and a better life in which my mother and, decades earlier, Marion made their decisions. Child abandonment will always exist to some extent, but how we choose to frame it ideologically matters for social policy. Rather than focusing on the beliefs and actions of single women, our frame of focus should be on poverty as a construct. Single motherhood does not equate with poverty in all countries. In the US, 45% of single mothers are impoverished; by contrast, only 13% of French, 5% of Finnish, and 4% of Swedish single mothers are impoverished.27 Although large numbers of Western European children live with single or unemployed parents, they are protected by a system of carefully designed universal assistance programs which shield mothers from the many mental, emotional, and physical consequences of poverty.28 In the end, we need not separate women’s inner motivations from their experiences of poverty to know that social policies which enable dignified personhood encourage dignified motherhood.
I’ll end not with my own words, but with those of Marion, who concludes her letter to the judge with a plea for the respect of her life as separate from that of her son’s:
Lonnie’s life has been pretty bad but mine hasn’t been any picnic either…I want to live too. I really want to see Lonnie settled in a nice home where he can be reasonably happy, where he will have a chance to make something of his life but not at the expense of my own.”