Evidence-Based Advocacy: Poverty, Adoption, and Inequality in Perspective

How do the intersections between adoption, poverty, race, and class play out today? 

Evidence-Based Advocacy is a column that seeks to bridge the gap between the research and activist communities. It will profile provocative new abortion research that activists may not otherwise be able to access.

Reproductive health academic and activist writing contains no shortage of articles devoted to untangling the various intersections between access to abortion, abortion stigma, and poverty. The same thoughtful commentary and analysis has been applied to parenting and motherhood, exploring ways that different mothers are subjected to stigma and societal judgment for their reproductive choices based on race and social class. Yet, when it comes to adoption, the intersections with poverty are just as complicated and deserving of analysis yet less examined by those who care deeply about reproductive health, rights, and justice. Since November marks the beginning of National Adoption Awareness Month, we decided to come together to review some new research on adoption and poverty.

Before Roe v. Wade, women had few good options when facing a unplanned pregnancy: get married (if they weren’t already) and parent the child; give birth and relinquish the baby for adoption; become a single mother in a society where that role was even more stigmatized and less supported than it is now; or, risk their health and life with an illegal abortion, should they know where to find one. Unsurprisingly, the demographic breakdowns of who chose which option varied dramatically by race and social class. Data from researcher Christine Bachrach, et al., shows that most White women facing unintended pregnancy (64 percent) married before the child was born and parented that child, compared to only 21 percent of Black women. Nineteen percent of White women relinquished children for adoption (usually under coercive circumstances), compared to under two percent of Black women. Most of these disparities are best attributed to the ways different communities accepted non-marital pregnancy and single motherhood. In her book Wake Up, Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade, historian Rickie Solinger writes:

“White women in this situation were defined as occupying a state of ‘shame,’ a condition that admitted rehabilitation and redemption [through adoption]… Black women, illegitimately pregnant, were not shamed but simply blamed…There was no redemption for these women.”

Today these racial disparities may be significantly less pronounced, but they have persisted. Though adoption rates for all women are very low (hovering between one to two percent for the past 15 years), it’s difficult to draw conclusions regarding race.  It remains true, however, that the women who relinquish or place children for adoption are almost always of a lower socioeconomic status than the families that adopt their children.

How, then, do the intersections between adoption, poverty, race, and class play out today? How are birth parents—most likely living in open adoptions, where they have ongoing contact with their child and his or her adoptive family—affected by these social differences? A new paper by sociologist Kathryn Sweeney examines perceptions of birth parents held by their counterparts: their own children’s adoptive parents.

Sweeney’s primary thesis is that the way our culture understands poverty broadly  influences the way adoptions are lived individually. She relates the culture of poverty (that is, the socially-conservative American model for explaining inequality which attributes poverty to an inherent laziness or lack of personal responsibility in low-income communities) to adoption by saying:

“[adoption] perpetuates culture of poverty arguments by assuming that removing children from families is a solution to poverty; removing children implies that the families they are born into are inadequate to raise them… The focus on failures means that connections are lacking to larger economic systems that lead to placements by disempowered birth mothers and give privileged adoptive parents access to children.”

Through 15 in-depth interviews with White adoptive parents, Sweeney examined how they perceive their child’s family of origin, and how those perceptions are influenced by broader ideas of a culture of poverty. The narratives of adoptive parents – even those adoptive parents who recognize the structural causes of poverty—focus on individual choice, individual responsibility, and courage and altruism in making adoption decisions. Many viewed birth parents as making “bad choices” that led to their pregnancy, and described a “pathology of poverty” in which the negative traits associated with poverty were viewed as contagious—and, consequently, the adoption was a redemptive way out. Not so different, then, from the type of “redemption” that Solinger describes as being available to women 50 years ago.

Though a small study, the implications here are profound. Sweeney’s findings represent challenges for those in the adoption community: agencies that unwarily allow culture-of-poverty discourses to influence discussions of adoptions; adoptive parents who view their child’s family of origin as substantially different from their own; birth/first families who attempt to negotiate ongoing openness in their adoptions across a cultural divide that is both real and manufactured; and adoptees who must develop an identity that reconciles both their adoptive parents’ ideas of their original families and their own feelings about their origins.

Outside of the adoption community, though, these findings tell us something about the “stickiness” of the culture of poverty narrative. It has become such an entrenched part of understanding inequality in our society, such an easy and accessible way of attributing difference, that it creates barriers to understanding and empathy. This narrative allows us to inappropriately view individuals’ reproductive choices outside of the context of their whole lives, and outside of a broader social context that includes systemic inequalities—and, in doing so, it prevents us from fully understanding how to allow people greater control over those choices.