Negative Externalities of Intercountry Adoption

A negative externality is a cost suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction.  In a transaction, the producer and consumer are the first and second parties, and third parties include any individual … indirectly affected. (Economics Online)

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Most people have heard about microeconomics but few realize they routinely utilize these principles on a daily basis.  I began to look at the world through a lens of microeconomics after obtaining my MBA at Syracuse University.  I looked at how my family made spending decisions and the actual costs associated with each purchase.  Most of the costs seen in our daily transactions are fully disclosed and transparent.  But upon closer examination I realized in some instances, the true costs are not fully transparent and not all costs were covered by the producer, which means a portion of the cost is paid by society. This dilemma in microeconomics is often referred to as a negative externality.  

An example of a negative externality could be a factory in China that pollutes in the atmosphere and the cost of the pollution then is passed onto Korean society.  The costs to Koreans would include: increased respiratory illnesses, higher medical expenses, poorer quality of life and reduced aesthetic appeal of the air.  The pollution expelled during the production of goods is a cost the factories do not have to pay.

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Generally, the public looks at the placement of abandoned Korean children with a home as a positive transaction.  But in the last decade, as Korean adoptees mature, they have been speaking openly about their adoption journeys and not all of what is shared has been positive.  In my case, I was adopted by a Scandinavian couple who was unable to have children.  I was moved to the Midwest USA and lived a difficult life filled with mental torture, physical abuse and hard physical labor.  I was forced to get up before dawn every morning at 05:00am to feed and milk the cattle of my adopted family’s farm.  I was berated daily by people who called themselves my family and for entertainment they would have the dog attack and bite me.

Stories like mine are becoming more numerous as research sociologists begin to acquire adoption statistics and publish their findings.  Policy makers and individuals who adopt should be aware intercountry adoptions come with them unique and complex social issues. Some adoptions are so complex and problematic, that many adoptees would argue adoption may not always be the right answer.  The full cost of adoption should taken into consideration when law makers create policies. The real costs go beyond the single transaction of a child being sent away to a foreign land, instead they are paid through the lives of individuals and the cost to society.  These costs should have merit and weigh in on the decision making of future intercountry adoption policies.

Cost to Adoptees

A large number of adoptees have no record of their family history.  The loss of an individual’s medical history produces anxiety and fear as they go through life not knowing the risks they could have altered with the aid of medical technology and change in lifestyle.  There is also a hidden monetary cost as this lack of information often means that adoptees will have to shell out more money to get insured and there is a cost to society when individuals cannot receive medical care due to the lack of a medical history.

In terms of efficiency, many adoptees spend several months and even years to search for their families or to find answers about their identity and culture.  Typically, most individuals do not spend their productive years to learn about or deal with such issues. Some individuals have delayed starting a family, pursuing education and turned down more lucrative job opportunities to satiate their hunger to know where they came from and who they are.

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Cost to Families

The other side of this equation is the Korean families that give up their child to be sent to foreign countries.  Women who give up their children undergo depression and emotional scaring which they often carry through the rest of their lives.  The author Carole J. Anderson, M.S.W., J.D. described it best in her booklet, Eternal Abuse of Women: Adoption Abuse where she states, “Adoption is not the end of a painful chapter, but the beginning of a lifetime of wondering, worrying, and missing the child.  It is a wound that time cannot heal … it is a limbo of loss.”  I often ask parents who have kids of their own if they would stop thinking about their children if they were kidnapped.  The normal response from most is that they would search for their children however long it takes to find them.  It should be no surprise then that women were forced, with little options, to give up their children are consumed by guilt and other negative thoughts for a long period of time or even their entire lifetime.

Cost to Adoptive Parents

Adoptive parents can become overwhelmed as they take care of a child from a foreign land.  Unlike a pet or a plant, the adoption process doesn’t normally allow the parents to return the child if they are not ready or unsatisfied.  They also bear the risk of health concerns, stress of overcoming language barriers, attachment issues and later on the feelings of rejection when the child begins to question their identity and origins.  In most instances, adopting parents spend more time learning to communicate with a child that is unable to speak their own language and other complexities in dealing with a child not biologically theirs.  What do you tell strangers or your children during the awkward conversations or challenges pertaining to ethnicity?  How do you deal with the cold stares as people look at your family because your children look different?  Many parents are not equipped to deal with such issues and the added stress has sometimes led to abuse, abandonment and/or rehoming of the adopted child.

Cost to Sending Country

In the past 2 decades, Korea has displaced more than 160,000 children through adoptions and more than 159,942 Korean males and 80,813 Korean females through foreign marriages (International Marriage and the State in South Korea, Hye-Kyung Lee).  This recent population loss of children and women in Korea will expand the ethnic populations of Korea and forever shape the cultural landscape.  The increasingly popular trend of searching for brides in foreign countries (due to the lack of brides available in Korea) along with greater disposable incomes and obtaining education outside of Korea will increase travel and business transactions to destinations outside of Korea.  Honeymoon trips to Thailand, the United States and Europe is becoming more frequent- this globalization or “flattening” of Korea as described in the book The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman will increase in ensuing years.  With increased travels there will be a decline in travel to domestic destinations like Kyongju and Jeju-do, which means Korean domestic economy must bear the cost of these demographic changes.

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There are other issues to Korea other than potential lost revenue.  For example, a decline in population as a whole.  The CIA World Fact book ranks Korea to be 210th out of 221 countries, one of the lowest birth rates of developed nations.  The United Nations has pegged it to be worse where Korea is ranked at the 4th lowest in the world with the fertility rate being 1.21 per woman.  Such news has numerous of implications and one of them will be the lack of general working population to sustain Korea’s economy.  Who will take care of the ever growing elderly population?  How will Korea able to compete with the growing global population without a workforce to grow with the expansions?  Yet Korea continues to sell off its most important asset (its children) to foreign countries and few companies have capitalized on recruiting or hiring Korean adoptees from abroad.  Numerous Korean adoptees have a rudimentary understanding of Hangul, the ability to bridge foreign policies with Korea’s and many know about Korea’s culture.  They could be a stop gap measure to help Korea remain a global economic powerhouse.

In closing, policy makers should heed the stories and advice of notable adoptees such as Olympic Athlete Toby Dawson, Senator Paull Shin and writer Jane Jeong Trenka.  Adoptees understand the ramifications of policy maker’s decisions and realize the true costs to the parties involved.

The full cost of adoption is not realized at the signing of the adoption, it isn’t paid off until many years or decades later as the children grow up to be adults, fully aware of what it means to be adopted.  

Many of us have a firm grasp on current legislative and social issues that face adoption and hope our advice can be implemented while there is still time to make changes that will make a difference.  To do this we need to take into consideration the negative externalities of adoption.

by Jayme Hansen