Generating Discussion: “The Culture of Poverty, Crack Babies, and Welfare Cheats”

In “The Culture of Poverty, Crack Babies, and Welfare Cheats,” Ana Teresa Ortiz and Laura Briggs assess the foundation of today’s poverty population and the so called “culture of poverty.”

Their piece begins with the examination of the early 90’s Romanian adoption boom and how U.S. foster children were viewed as “damaged goods.” Instead of adopting children in need here, where they would have received subsidies and federal aid, many families hoping to adopt opted to spend thousands of dollars just to travel overseas.

Ortiz and Briggs believe this was caused by how needy or impoverished children are “viewed” in the U.S. Unlike other countries, America sees poor children as nothing more than products of their own “degenerate” parents, unable to succeed in the world, and will therefore be destined to face the same fate as those parents. However, as the authors point out, this way of thinking seems to be unique to Americans: Ironically, children “at risk” who live overseas are seen as both in need of rescue and characterologically untainted. These children are seen as victimized by a poverty that can be remedied through transformation of the state, modernization, education, technology, and science” (41). Ortiz and Briggs also quote Oscar Lewis’ view on the culture of poverty and how it is “passed down from generation to generation.”

Their section on “crack babies” was especially interesting for me to read. I, myself, have fallen victim to the widely accepted opinion on “crack babies” being “doomed for life,” having a proliferous amount of health problems and developmental difficulties. I had no idea that there was such a hidden backstory behind the issue, involving racial profiling, misreported “evidence,” and a failed welfare system.

My questions include:

What would be the first step we need to take in order to view our impoverished children in a new light? Or is that even the root of the problem?

Why do other countries approach poverty in a more “positive” way than America does? Are they more compassionate, or is it due to their more collectivist perspective (where as the U.S. is an individualistic culture)?

Though we are essentially individualists, why do Americans make exceptions for certain social issues? Why do we think it is okay to tell a pregnant woman what is appropriate for her while pregnant, if we are so separated from everyone else when it comes to other topics?


3 thoughts on “Generating Discussion: “The Culture of Poverty, Crack Babies, and Welfare Cheats”

  1. To touch on your last question, I think people feel more inclined to speak up to voice the cans and cannots of pregnant women because they are the future of life and of generations to come. I think people want future generations to try to be healthier and one way to start that right away is for the women that carry babies to try to keep those babies healthier in every way possible. Ultimately it is up to the women who carry babies to decide what they do and do not do but society might feel a need to try to make a difference even if that difference is never achieved.

  2. The “crack baby” phenomenon is an disgusting example of how moral panic can have a devasting effect on inocent lives. I myself adopted two children who were “drug babies” and they are intelligent, competent, loving individuals who are socially amazing. I believe the trauma these children suffer such as lack of food, healthcare, abuse and neglect have more of an effect on their abilities to become self sufficient functioning adults than the drugs. Honestly, I do not know the answer to your questions. Maybe if more people looked beyond the surface of social problems to the root causes, we may then live in a more equitable world.

  3. I’ve been reflecting on the question you asked about the root cause of the crack baby phenomenon. My aunt adopted three kids from the county we live in, and like Susan two of them were also marked as drug exposed, which was interesting for me because they are growing up like any other kids their age. I wonder how much of this crack baby epidemic coincided with our drug policies within the United States and how they shape our views on drugs and consequently how we see children who are exposed to drugs.

    I feel like we live in a culture that is obsessed with talking about drugs as always bad, but if I remember correctly the article said that crack exposed kids are not effected by it. Not to say that you should go and do hella crack if pregnant, but I think this perception of “damaged kids” definitely ties into our drug policies and how our fear around drugs within the United States intersects with social identities to produce beliefs about who takes drugs to affect those babies, and if those babies are redeemable afterwards.

    For me I think we need to continue fights against racism, sexism, classism, and the current U.S. drug policy in order to have children who are marked as “crack babies” be free from these stigmas around their being. I think its important to remember the raced, classed, and gendered stereotypes that surround the people who have these kids (ex. welfare queens and “absent” fathers) that then get transfered to these kids and produce them as undesirable children.

    On a broader level I think its also important to think about the nuclear family and how desires around having a nuclear family are socialized into us since we are little. An often forgettable tenet of the nuclear family norm is the importance of having kids who are biologically yours. How do desires for a nuclear family also create a challenge for the foster-care system who not only have to fight against the desires for biologically-related nuclear families when placing kids, but also ideas that kids in foster-care are all crack babies or degenerates?

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