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Can the State Care for Children?

By Timothy D. Terrell
March 01, 2006

To a highly educated bureaucrat accustomed to thinking up better ways to organize society, many traditional families can look messy. They are often impoverished, managed by people who fight with one another, go bankrupt, use harmful drugs, drink or smoke or eat excessively, and watch violent shows on TV.

Making matters worse, some families include helpless children who are forever affected by the mistakes and sins of their parents. Children are neglected or abused, sometimes severely.

To a bureaucrat, it only makes sense that the state should be deeply involved in correcting the family’s failings. Taking children from families where they have been criminally abused makes sense to most of us, but the bureaucrat wants more. Welfare, regulation, government-supervised education, and occasional inspection by social services agencies all seem reasonable. But can the state really do a better job of caring for children?

The State and the Integrity of the Family

Welfare programs like Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) rest on the assumption that government payments are beneficial for children. But welfare has broken down the two-parent family by rearranging financial incentives for parents. AFDC makes single-parent households more common by passing to others the costs of bearing children out of wedlock. Although many government interventions probably contributed to the increase in illegitimacy rates, AFDC has rightly taken much of the blame. Economists Steven Caudill and Franklin Mixon concluded in a 2000 study that “increases in real AFDC benefits are associated with greater illegitimacy rates.”1

Conservative Christians are sometimes accused of wanting less state involvement while offering unworkable alternatives. But there is nothing unworkable about the family and the church. These are God-ordained institutions that have survived and even flourished for millennia. Certainly, individual family units break down, and when they do, the extended family and the church can provide effective support with accountability.

Where that support proves inadequate, there is adoption. The state has offered money without accountability, and abortion without constraint. As a result, fewer impoverished mothers take advantage of the alternatives provided by family, church, and adoption. The children the state professes to care about are left in weaker households.

Adoption has declined since the early 1970s, largely because welfare programs socialize the costs of raising children. In 1970 there were 175,000 adoptions; by 1986 this had fallen to about 104,000.2 Christian orphanages have declined as well, and the state’s designated replacement, foster care, is a severely flawed system. William Shughart and William Chappell have argued that the transition to foster care from orphanages has made children less adoptable3, perhaps because of the problems caused by children being transferred from one temporary home to another. Their research bears this out, showing that states that were the first to shift from orphanages to foster care had lower adoption rates.

State Mercy Ministry?

The inadequacies of government in this area should not surprise Christians. The civil government is an instrument of justice, not of mercy (Romans 13:4). The care of children who have been orphaned, abandoned, or otherwise deprived of their parents is a mercy ministry, properly the territory of individuals, families, and churches. Failure of individuals, families, and churches to do mercy ministry does not convert the state from a minister of wrath to a minister of compassion.

As is often the case, the tricky areas are the interfaces between spheres of authority. If the local sheriff arrests a single mother for, say, murder, what is to become of her child? If the next of kin cannot be located, some short-term childcare arrangement must be made quickly, to be followed by long-term placement if the mother is convicted and punished. Ideally, the sheriff would have a list of churches or homes that have  the capacity to take care of suddenly parentless children. Upon the mother’s arrest, the list could be used to find someone to take the child. The state need not take custody at any point.

Of course, this means that the state must have some concept of what constitutes a legitimate child-care arrangement. Some distinction must be made between a Biblical church and an operation set up to take in children for nefarious purposes. This means that the state cannot pretend to be religiously neutral. The First Church of Pedophiles, for a (hopefully) outlandish example, would have to be ruled out as an option, and this requires an official statement from the civil magistrate as to what constitutes a church and what does not, what constitutes a legitimate foster family and what does not.

The state actually creates a large part of the problem of alternative childcare by neglecting Biblical principles of criminal justice. Long-term imprisonment is nowhere commanded in the Bible as a legitimate punishment for crime. Biblical punishments for crimes include restitution (Ex. 22:1-15), which allows parents to stay with their children while they work off their debt. The death penalty, another Biblical punishment (Ex. 21:12), certainly would separate children from parents, but the deterrent effect of the death penalty would help make these tragic cases rare.

We should not forget, too, that when the death penalty is applied for a crime like murder, the execution may make a child an orphan, but it would also deter would-be murderers from making orphans of their potential victims’ children. War also makes orphans of children, and thus any state that engages in unjust warfare adds to the number of children for whom alternative placements must be found.

With childcare, as in other areas, the civil government fails when it acts inconsistently with Biblical law. It fails morally and it fails visibly in the performance of its usurped roles. The state’s intervention will be inferior in many respects to what other social institutions (extended family, churches, and private organizations) can provide.

Families and churches are certainly not perfect. But we should not assume that the state’s bureaucrats can do a better job. As R. J. Rushdoony wrote,

The tragic fact is that many families are not only unbelieving but evil in their care and rearing of children. The state is no better, and its record of custodial care is even worse, so that the failures of bad parents are compounded by a supposedly beneficent state. It is a very serious error to believe that problems have solutions outside of Christ. All around us, we see statist and humanistic solutions routinely aggravating problems.4

The state needs to get out of the childcare business and let other institutions resume their places in caring for those who are impoverished or orphaned. We can say little about what the resulting mix of alternative childcare arrangements might look like, but increased privatization and church involvement would doubtless bring improvements.

Whose Children Are They, Anyway?

The United States has a tradition of resisting the encroachment of the state into the province of the family. In a 1923 Supreme Court case, Meyer v. Nebraska, the U. S. Supreme Court held that the Nebraska legislature had “attempted materially to interfere with...the power of parents to control the education of their own.” When, in 1922, the state of Oregon compelled all children to attend public school, the Supreme Court struck down the law in the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). Observing that parents and guardians have the right “to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control,” the Court noted that “the child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” A well-known recent case regarding grandparent visitation rights, Troxel v. Granville (2000), resulted in the Court opinion that the Constitution “protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.”

But with Washington’s respect for the Constitution diminishing each year, parents cannot count on continued court protection from politicians who want to extend their reach into homes and families. Already, state social services agencies are notorious for invading homes and unnecessarily taking children from parents.

For many years, truancy laws have allowed the state to stake out substantial claims to a child’s upbringing that extend down to age five or six. Once the state has legal authority to require certain types of schooling for five- or six-year-olds, what principle stands in the way of extending that authority to two- or three-year-olds? Politicians have attempted just this: in 2003, Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) introduced H.R. 3007, the Universal Pre-Kindergarten Act, which would help states bring children into schools at younger ages. The bill died, but politicians will doubtless try this sort of thing again.

Statist attempts to micromanage childhood date back to the ancient Greeks, at least. The Spartans brought seven-year-old boys into barracks and entrusted their subsequent education and training to the government. At least the Spartans had the decency to wait until age seven. Plato would have started even earlier. The extreme statism outlined in his Republic proposed to collectivize all aspects of child-rearing and orient education toward the aggrandizement of the state. Plato proposed “that the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent.... The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter.”

Two 19th century American socialists, Robert Owen and Frances Wright, sought compulsory education for all children over the age of two. The children would live in state institutions twenty-four hours a day, with occasional visits from their parents. The schools would “feed them, clothe them, lodge them; must direct not their studies only, but their occupations and amusements and must care for them until their education is completed.” The entire scheme was, quite openly, for the benefit of the state. As Owen and Wright explained in 1847, “It is national, rational, republican education; free for all at the expense of all; conducted under the guardianship of the state, and for the honor, the happiness, the virtue, the salvation of the state.”

Rushdoony noted that the state’s form of “concern” for children is often self-serving and sometimes even deadly. He wrote,

The present direction of statist “concern” for the family should arouse Christians to action. Our faith, after all, sees the family as God’s basic form of government, not the church nor the state. Moreover, the Bible is most revealing as an anti-statist document in these and other matters. It tells us, for example, of Pharaoh and the Egyptian state, and their planned extermination of the Hebrew children. The greatest condemnation is reserved for Molech worship (king or state worship), which required the dedication of all children to the state, and their possible sacrifice to the state’s welfare. We see Babylon seizing all superior children, such as Daniel, separating them from their families to rear them as civil servants. Supremely, of course, we see Herod slaughtering all the children of Bethlehem up to two years of age, in his effort to kill the Christ child. The Bible gives us every reason to be suspicious of the state, especially when it professes a concern for our children.5

1 Caudill, Steven, and Franklin Mixon, “AFDC Payments and Illegitimacy Ratios: A Reappraisal of Endogeneity Using Panel Data,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 59, no. 3 (July 2000), p. 451.

2 Stolley, Kathy S., “Statistics on Adoption in the United States,” Adoption, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1993).

3 William F. Shughart II and William F. Chappell, “Fostering the Demand for Adoptions: An Empirical Analysis of the Impact of Orphanages and Foster Care on Adoptions in the United States,” chapter 9 in Richard B. McKenzie, ed., Rethinking Orphanages for the 21st Century, Sage, 1998.

4 Rousas J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito: Ross House Books), p. 1056.

5Ibid.


Topics: Biblical Law, Education, Family & Marriage, Government, Statism

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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