Freaking out over Freakonomics

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.

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7 thoughts on “Freaking out over Freakonomics

  1. While I feel shame to even consider adoption from that perspective, some of his rationalizations are uncomfortably familiar.
    Healthy, less risk of birth parent interference,
    shorter and less complex process. Those three.
    I think it likely most parents go into this thinking how benevolent, even altruistic adoption is supposed to be. Then it becomes a question of how to 1) get it done and 2) have a high chance of a happy (successful) family.
    Then I think it often comes apart at the seams later on. Some of us wake up and realize what we have done and some, well, the other day I had an adoptive parent I know (not that well) compare the adoption of his Central American born son to adopting a puppy. I almost lost my mind.
    Your work is helping to change this, I hope. The image of adoption of course needs to change and the emphasis needs to be placed on families and parents at risk of losing their children, not those of us that are of risk of thinking it is all about US, not these children and their birth families.

  2. Ugh. Jae Ran, thanks for posting Levitt’s response, and, more importantly, thanks for your analysis. Levitt’s response made my skin crawl.
    I also saw another huge issue: how quickly he dismissed “adoption from Africa” (a continent of dozens of countries so often considered as one big lump). Also, using Madonna as his example of adoptions from “Africa”? Why not at least invoke Angelina?
    Ethiopia has a pretty reliable, smooth adoption process for adoptive families. Liberia and other countries are also open to adoption.
    I’m not suggesting he should have adopted from an African country, actually, but I’m irritated by the racism in his dismissal of the entire continent. And, also in regards with African adoption: we are actually fighting our agency right now to have MORE contact with first family in Ethiopia.
    Also, the sexism was bad… assuming girls would be easier to raise than boys.
    Sometimes really brilliant people just can’t see themselves, can they?

  3. Yuck. Just… yuck.
    If he really thinks that because his daughters are Asian doesn’t mean they’re going to have identity issues, he’s in for one hell of a shock. Or, maybe he won’t be. Maybe they’ll just internalize it and protect him from their confusion and uncertainty… which means their future friends and life partners will be in for one hell of a shock.
    Again, yuck.

  4. Hi Jae Ran,
    I’m wondering if any parents who want to adopt consider moving to the country that they say they purportedly “love” so much. To me, this is the most ethical way an adoption can take place – kid never has to leave and therefore doesn’t have quite as many losses to battle, parents make all the sacrifices, and can model domestic adoption, promote democratic process which ultimately is more sustainable and “helps” women and families. Any thoughts on this?
    Thanks,
    Allison

  5. Can you Post the Harlwo’s studies vedio on youtube so that people, not just only me, can see the vedio that we have been searchig so hard for. This in not a real name,so pleace do not take the name very seriously, but take this e-mail very seriously. Thank to who ever reads this e-mail.

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