A happy ending for all. Photographer: Janet Worne/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty Images
A happy ending for all. Photographer: Janet Worne/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty Images

I’ve been reading "How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York" by Jacob Riis, a seminal muckraking work published in 1901. Most of it is heartbreaking; all of it is fascinating. But here is the most heartbreaking passage in the book so far:

They come in rags, a newspaper often the only wrap, semi-occasionally one in a clean slip with some evidence of loving care; a little slip of paper pinned on, perhaps, with some such message as this I once read, in a woman’s trembling hand: “Take care of Johnny, for God’s sake. I cannot.” But even that is the rarest of all happenings. The city divides with the Sisters of Charity the task of gathering them in. The real foundlings, the children of the gutter that are picked up by the police, are the city’s wards. In midwinter, when the poor shiver in their homes, and in the dog-days when the fierce heat and foul air of the tenements smother their babies by thousands, they are found, sometimes three and four in a night, in hallways, in areas and on the doorsteps of the rich, with whose comfort in luxurious homes the wretched mother somehow connects her own misery. Perhaps, as the drowning man clutches at a straw, she hopes that these happier hearts may have love to spare even for her little one. In this she is mistaken. Unauthorized babies especially are not popular in the abodes of the wealthy. It never happens outside of the story-books that a baby so deserted finds home and friends at once. Its career, though rather more official, is less romantic, and generally brief. After a night spent at Police Headquarters it travels up to the Infants’ Hospital on Randall’s Island in the morning, fitted out with a number and a bottle, that seldom see much wear before they are laid aside for a fresh recruit. Few outcast babies survive their desertion long. Murder is the true name of the mother’s crime in eight cases out of ten.

Of 508 babies received at the Randall’s Island Hospital last year 333 died, 65.55 percent. But of the 508 only 170 were picked up in the streets, and among these the mortality was much greater, probably nearer ninety per cent., if the truth were told. The rest were born in the hospitals. The high mortality among the foundlings is not to be marveled at. The wonder is, rather, that any survive. The stormier the night, the more certain is the police nursery to echo with the feeble cries of abandoned babes. Often they come half dead from exposure. One live baby came in a little pine coffin which a policeman found an inhuman wretch trying to bury in an up-town lot. But many do not live to be officially registered as a charge upon the county. Seventy-two dead babies were picked up in the streets last year. Some of them were doubtless put out by very poor parents to save funeral expenses. In hard times the number of dead and live foundlings always increases very noticeably. But whether travelling by way of the Morgue or the Infants’ Hospital, the little army of waifs meets, reunited soon, in the trench in the Potter’s Field where, if no medical student is in need of a subject, they are laid in squads of a dozen.

…An infinitely more fiendish, if to surface appearances less deliberate, plan of child-murder than desertion has flourished in New York for years under the title of babyfarming. The name, put into plain English, means starving babies to death. The law has fought this most heinous of crimes by compelling the registry of all baby-farms. As well might it require all persons intending murder to register their purpose with time and place of the deed under the penalty of exemplary fines.

I don’t need to explain why this is heartbreaking. But it is also a testament to one of the most heartwarming trends in 20th-century America: the disappearance of the surplus baby.

In Riis’s time, there were, quite simply, more babies than parents could feed. Many of these babies were illegitimate, and their outcast mothers had no way of caring for them. Charity tried to take care of them but lacked the resources to do so -- not just the funds, but also things such as infant formula. There was little demand for infant adoption; in a stark contrast to today, demand was much higher for older children, who didn’t have to be nursed and could do farm work. The foundling charities' aim was just to have their charges survive long enough to be sent west for adoption in the labor-hungry territories.

These days, adoptable infants are so rare that parents wait years and pay tens of thousands of dollars to get one. What explains the change?

I know what you’re thinking: birth control; abortion; the end of the stigma against unwed motherhood. And those things undoubtedly played a part: immediately after Roe v. Wade, the number of adoptable white infants dropped sharply.1 But in fact, the change started well before that. By the end of World War II, when the stigma against unwed motherhood was still very high, demand for adoptable infants was already growing much faster than the supply.

What changed? Two things, I’d suggest: First, we became richer. The cost of feeding and clothing a child was no longer a terrifying burden, so people became more interested in adopting children who weren’t theirs.

Second, the value of child labor declined. People who adopted at the end of the 19th century were often looking for farmhands and junior household help. People who adopted in the middle of the 20th were looking for a child to love.

Obviously, those weren’t the only reasons: Social changes of all sorts mattered a lot. But this is also an economic story; as we got richer, we became more willing, and able, to take care of our nation’s babies. That’s a great story, and we should tell it more often.

1 It’s most useful to look at white infants because interracial adoption became controversial in the late 1960s, and the supply of minority adoptive parents was much smaller than the supply of white adoptive parents.

To contact the writer of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.