Adoption law is an area of research economists seldom visit. But AU economics professor Mary Hansen dug in. While researching adoption in Washington, D.C., she encountered a puzzling practice: Families of foster children in the District received subsidies till age 21, but for an adopted child subsidies ended when the child turned 18.
Hansen’s work demonstrates the value of engaged scholarship: After testifying twice before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services, this spring the College of Arts and Sciences professor helped get passed a subsidy extension for adopted children that matches the level for foster children.
Q: What was the effect of the District’s previous law on subsidies for adoption?
A: If you know you can get a subsidy for three additional years and you know this child is going to be in your house for three additional years or you’re pretty sure they are, then obviously you prefer not to adopt this child, even though it’s pretty clear from the data . . . that kids who are adopted do better. They get more education; they’re more likely to be attached to the labor force; they’re less likely to rely on welfare benefits, food stamps; they are less likely to wind up in jail.
Q: The previous subsidies system seems counterintuitive, though as you’ve noted it’s not unique. How does such a system happen in the first place?
A: It’s not always clear politicians know what the laws are so when you point it out that there’s this conflict [they’re surprised]. Because a lot of times one piece of the law will be altered or the . . . government will change one regulation and not adopt another regulation. There are a lot of examples of this in child welfare. We could go on forever. One thing will get changed, like foster care maintenance payments are extended to 21, but at some point somebody should have said . . . “Wait a minute. Why would we do that and not extend adoption payments to 21? Won’t that cause a problem?”
Q: Your research led to important, tangible results. That must be gratifying.
A: That’s one of the reasons why I love teaching at AU because I get to take knowledge into action, action into service quite literally. And you know it’s not at every university that that works, it’s really not, because it’s not the kind of work that’s going to get published in a journal. . . . I think it’s recognized in the department that it’s worth spending time doing these sorts of things in the community because when I’m downtown talking to councilmen and talking to their staff and talking to the administrative staff in child and family services that reflects well on AU.
Q: You have personal experience with adoption. Could you talk about that?
A: I’m adopted. We [Hansen and her husband, Bradley Hansen, chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Mary Washington] have adopted three children from foster care. In the process of our first adoption we started to learn about these policies and started to ask questions like, how effective is this? How many families are incentivized? And when we realized that the answers weren’t out there we said, well, we know how to find this out so let’s find this out.
Q: Could you tell me about your own adoption?
A: I was the pretty classic 1950s – 1960s adoption. It was a private adoption, and I was adopted as an infant. Being adopted isn’t an unusual thing. About one in every three people is directly connected to somebody who is adopted or has adopted someone. So it’s not a rare event in demographic terms. And so it’s never been one of the crisis points in my own life. What I think it does for people is it makes you think what family means in broader terms. So I didn’t really think of family as being biological in any particular way. Family is about commitment. Your family is the set of people with whom you are committed.
When we were thinking about adding more children to our family, and we had a couple of kids the old-fashioned way . . . [adopting] didn’t seem like an unusual thing. We don’t need to produce anymore. There are plenty of children out there who don’t have families.