Not so easy to adopt from China anymore

Adoption of Chinese orphans by Americans has skyrocketed in popularity over the last two decades. I’m part of that trend, with two daughters adopted from China.

Although by most calculations there is no shortage of baby girls in orphanages in China, in the last few years the Chinese government agency that is responsible for matching American applicants to Chinese babies has been unable to meet the rising demand. I’ve often wondered why they don’t just increase the size of the agency in charge of foreign adoptions, but that is another story. The result has been a dramatic increase in wait times. When I adopted a few years ago, the lag between submitting one’s application to China and being assigned a baby was about 9 months. I thought the length of that lag was intentional — meant to represent the wait one would have for a biological child. In recent months, however, the wait times have increased to 15 months.

Making people wait in queues is one way to deal with excess demand. As the wait gets longer, some people decide it is not worth it, and eventually supply and demand equilibrate. It is an inefficient mechanism, though, because the wait imposes real costs on the eager parents (many of whom are not that young to begin with). The usual mechanism we use when demand exceeds supply is to raise prices. Right now adopting a child from China costs about $20,000 in total (relatively little of which goes directly to the Chinese government). If the Chinese government imposed an extra charge of $20,000 to double the price, that would probably solve the problem of excess demand pretty quickly. If that extra money was earmarked for the children who remain behind in the orphanage, there wouldn’t be much in the way of complaints. People might grumble some, but compared to the lifetime cost of raising a child, this still is not much money.

The Chinese government (and for that matter governments more generally) doesn’t naturally gravitate to prices as the way of solving market failures. Instead, earlier this week the Chinese government instituted a new set of rules dictating who will and will not be allowed to adopt from China in the future. Excluded are single parents, the obese, those older than 50. They also made it harder for people who were divorced in the past to adopt. The theory behind the changes is that people in the excluded categories make worse parents. That is a subject open to debate, although in Freakonomics we mostly come down on the side that what matters more than anything is that the parents simply love the children. However you slice it, these new policies are going to create a lot of ill-will. Maybe we should do more to restrict who becomes parents in the U.S., but we don’t, which gives this policy a very un-American feel.

The Chinese government can, of course, impose whatever rules they want. This is one case, though, where simply raising price would have been an easier, more politically savvy answer.


I really wonder what the prices are for "substitutes." How do the prices of adopting a child from China compare to adopting a child from Malawi?


Why is adopting so expensive? $20k? I had no idea. It seems like the orphanages (or whatever they are these days) would be more than willing to put the children in a good home for a small fee. $20,000 is insane, especially if it's for adopting a child from China, Eastern Europe, Africa, or some other similar "not quite developed" part of the world.


If you say yourselves that the most important factor in the live of the children is to be loved, then why impose an economic barrier? Are poorer people less capable of loving someone? I'm already quite surprised by the $20.000 'price'. Doubling that would certainly lower the market demand, but I doubt if it's a good selector for good parenting. And I guess that's what a system should still strife for. Unless you'd want those children to grow up in a rich family: Than price certainly makes a difference.


Sorry, but you don't come down on the side of love as far as children are concerned. have you read your book? Money, education, IQ, yes, but i don't remember a refernce to love. Did i miss something?


First of all, congratulations on having such beautiful children.

Second, I'm very disturbed at some of the comments. Evidently many of your readers have more problems with your daughters than your son does. Good for him!

The additional cost and prerequisites indicates that the Chinese adoption system is heading towards the over-regulated American system, where over 40 parents are disqualified, prohibitive costs, racial preferances and red tape. Were the market to come in to play the criteria would be simple: Will you love this child and can you provide a safe home? End of story.

Like ours, the Beijing system will be run for the benefit of middle man interlocurs, forcing tens of thousands of children to continue languishing in Chinese orphanages. God help them.


People ask why couples don't adopt domestically. As I understand it, it's a lot harder to adopt here than it is internationally.

Also, if a couple adopts internationally and brings that baby home, it's their baby - they don't have to worry about a biological parent showing up a few years down the line and saying "I changed my mind" and taking their child back.


15 months is the official word. Our group is due to get our referrals today or Wednesday, which will make it 20 months, which is about what most people we know are saying as well.

Lisa McLeod

When are we going to open our hearts and move beyond policy, to realize we probably have enough parents to go around for all the kids who need one.

check out what happened when one north carolina town adopted a choir full of orphans from liberia.

on a separate note, china is going to be the alaska, all men, no women.

I'm no economist but something tells me that when the females are in scarce supply their value goes waaaaay up.


Why China? Why not Africans, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Indians, etc.?

I want to see the rationale.

Jun Okumura

A child, unlike a slave, is not a commodity. The ward's value inheres to the child, not the guardian. The orphanage or other authority that determines the transaction price of the child is doing so on behlaf of the child. Thus, unless the 20 K or whatever other money paid is invested in the child (a trust?), such a fee would be the worst way imaginable to solve the allocation problem.

Barring the existence of a meaningful market mechanism to efficently allocate the children among prospective adoptive parents, any self-respecting authority will instead try to establish the best criteria imaginable to manage the process. The authority will inevitably use criteria acceptable to the society it belongs to. Some of these criteria will be decidedly alien to adoptive parents from Western societies. There is no way this gap cqan be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides.

In any case, a monetary price as a threshold would be the silliest of criteria imaginable.



I think it's a positive sign that China's adoption pattern is resembling South Korea's in the last few decades. It's indicative of a society that's flourishing economically. You have more education and lifestyle incentives to avoid having unwanted children and more money for parents to able to afford having or adopting children.

It's no coincidence the poorer the country, the more children get adopted abroad.

I personally think it's great if they can have children adopted within their own country. It's an easier adjustment to remain part of a society that is familiar to them.

I understand Americans, with their unique history, may have difficulty understanding this...but it is considered a great loss for a child to lose his or her connection with an ancestry and heritage that traces back thousands of years.

I often wonder if people really think about the consequences to a child, when they adopt one from thousands of miles away and from a distinctly different culture.

And why is it more adoptive parents don't adopt in their backyard? The U.S. has tens of thousands of orphans and children in foster care who need a good home. Is it simply that there are more hurdles to be a parent here, than adopting from abroad? Is it that more costly, time-consuming and difficult that it isn't worth the effort?

Is it a common attitude, as I observed with a adoptive parents (white, non-Spanish speaking) who I talked to recently, to think it'd be easier to raise a child from Guatemala than a black child from their local area? They truly believed it would be an easier adjustment for the child and more beneficial.

I wasn't sure what to say to that.



As a very proud parent to an adopted daughter of China I think this is one entry that you could have left alone. I believe and is often my attitude that when people ask, its my place to 1) protect my daughters from rude comments 2) not let them be the center of attention to someone's racial or ignorant comments. (Ignorant in the terms of they don't know about what they speak only from what they have "heard about".) 3) and if people are interested, to educate.

We waited 9 months for our referral. We spent about $20K. We have the most beautiful daughter and have met the most wonderful people along the way. If someone wants to know more about how they can help, have them visit, and see what a few additional dollars can do to make the world smaller and more educated.

And we have domestically adopted a daughter as well.


Why should I have left it alone? I speak from the vantage point of someone who's Asian that was raised both in the U.S. and in Asia. Who has Asian friends that only grew up in Asia, grew up with their biological parents in the U.S. and those who were adopted. I can tell you of the four (all girls) I knew that were adopted--all of them felt some sense of loss, confusion and disconnect from the rest of us who grew up in Asia or with our Asian parents.

It's not to say they weren't happy and loved their adopted parents very much. But, I also know how my friends were affected. I honestly don't know if people realize this or if it's a topic that's left it simply because it makes people uncomfortable?

If you think I'm wrong, that's fine. I would suggest talking to an adult who was adopted from abroad. Ask them what it was like, what challenges they had. Because like it or not, your adopted child may very well be tackling with the same issues later in life.

I do want to emphasize that this issue has nothing to do with a parent's ability to raise a child. I think feeling the loss of their heritage in those circumstances is as natural to an adopted child as wondering what his/her biological parents were like...something to be recognized as a natural response, understood, dealt with sensitively and minimized if possible.


lady godiva

I was a young 20-something gal living/working in Hefei, China for an US-based CA company. I was sitting in a hotel lobby waiting a visiting company exec from our joint venture company and he was taking I started watching the people coming in and out of the lobby. I noticed an influx of "wai-gwos" or foreigners going up the staircase to a conference room. I then noticed that every 15 minutes or so, someone (usually a young COUPLE) would come into the lobby carrying a beautiful little baby girl. The couples who would ascend those stairs looked like they were about to die. As if they almost wished each and every breath was their last. When they would descend the staircase, sans baby, the emotional death would be complete, faces ashen and broken.

I asked the lobby clerks what was going on upstairs, and found out it was an adoption room rented for the weekend. Foreign couples went in, excited and happy....and the birth mothers, sometimes with the fathers, would enter a different room, adjacent to the one the childless couples had entered....some time would elapse, and the birth mothers would emerge and leave the hotel through the lobby...passing right in front of me. I could tell when it was the mom and when it was actually orphanage personell. You can of course imagine why. Anyway...the other side of the story is that you could hear squeals of joy coming from upstairs as the mother, with bowed head, would be walking through that big echo chamber of a lobby on her way out the door.

At this point, my johnny-come-lately colleague finally emerged and we left the hotel for about three hours...and when our meeting was over, I insisted on accompanying him back to the hotel, as I wanted to see more of the most surreal exchange I had ever witnessed in my life.

I was amazed to see that all the wai-gwos were milling about the hotel grounds with strollers and walkers and teetering little chinese girls all dolled up in bows and satin blankies... and the biggest smiles plastered on their faces you could imagine. The couples were more in love, hugging each other and the baby, tears streaming, happy and loud phone calls happening in the hallways to the folks back home, and I suppose at this point, they were done with the paperwork, the "exchange" from birth mom to adopted mom.

The mood that filled the lobby was joyous, estatic, filled with relief and absolutely NOTHING like the depressing and suffocating atmosphere that permeated that same lobby just 3-4 hours earlier. It was the most amazing study in human emotion...and it broke my heart at the same time.

I didn't have any kids of my own at the time I experienced this, or I may have just gone mad watching the crushed women leaving the hotel. I didn't know what being a mom meant to me, and so therefore I was able to watch with a totally objective viewpoint...however, ten years later, now that I have two beautiful little kiddos of my own I don't think I could have sat in that lobby watching the heartbreak...but I am glad I did because it gave me the opportunity to come back and watch the new parents coo and cuddle the beautiful little person they were now responsible for...I still don't know how I feel about it...there was no right emotion that day. I saw it from both sides as a fly on a wall....



While I don't have personal experience either with being adopted or being Asian, I am struck by the comment you made about the four girls who you see as having a disconnect from the rest of the Asians who grew up with Asian parents and in Asia.

It's probably because I'm an American, but why would a child raised from infancy by American non-Asian parents be expected to have any particular connection to children raised by Asian parents in Asia? If I had a brother or sister who was adopted from China, wouldn't he or she have more or less the same cultural affinities that I do? Why should he or she feel any more connected to people from China than I do? Why is that bad?

Also, you asked why don't more people adopt at home. Aren't their lots of children born in the United States who need parents? Those here who have adopted should know better than I, but what I have heard is that in the U.S. there are way way more couples who wish to adopt a newborn than there are newborns to go around. To the point where flying to the opposite side of the world to adopt a child for $20,000 is the better easier choice than trying to adopt a baby here. The children who are not adopted here who are orphans or in foster care are not infants. I only know a few people who have adopted older children, and that cames with some challenges that are very different from adopting a newborn.



Wow!! Some many people so many thoughts! I and my husband of four years have discussed adoption many times, and adopting from China was one that we most talked about. We love the culture and the history of China, and from my understanding they have alot of babies and childern that NEED homes, loving homes, so to say that me and American, and white person, should not adopt a baby from China, because they might feel a void in their life,(after all American babies don't feel this void, because their AMERICAN!) are you saying to leave these childern in the state that they are in today? No home, no family to love them, no one to provide for them! Yes, maybe Jamiek is right, maybe we shouldn't provide for a single little person that did NOT ASK to be brought in this world, but has been and then dumped upon an overflowing ophanage!!! Thats a bunch of crap and maybe Jamiek should know what if feels like to have no one and nothing because you were born a girl! And for those of you that think 20k is insane to bring home a beautiful child, your insane!! For those of you that have no problem having childern, well there are others in this world that have a very hard time having childern and spend 20k+ to have a child of their own. Please be open minded, this is a wonderful gift for some families and for the childern that are adopted, Chinese, African, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Indians, ect.



From a completely economic viewpoint: Some percentage of the 20k adoption fee is tax deductible, so it is possible for families who cannot afford the fee flat out to still get some of their money back.


i was adopted from china and it was pretty easy


My brother was adopted from Cambodia in 74 during the time of the Khmer regime and the beginning of the Killing Fields. I have now adopted a child from China for a variety of reasons. I also got the question that one person posed of why from china and not us and also that it would be hard for a chid to be taken away from their culture. While the grief is real that the child will have to face can we not also be educated and aware of the realty of what happens to these children who are not adopted. For my brother we have PROOF that he would have been killed and the orphanage (he and others were rescued from and flown to US by a relief agency) that he was from was burned down. For many of the orphans in China- when they reach 18 and are not adopted...they often go into goverment manual labor work programs or are turned out on the streets or get jobs in orphanages as child-care providers themselves. I think every one is on a journey and often the person that has thought most about their decision is not you or I, it is that person. To question why they did this or that without knowng them is really none of our business. We plan to stay as connected as possible to our daughter's Chinese heritage but also know that grieving our losses, whatever they may be, is an important part of our journey. The bottom line is that all kids there will not be adopted by Chinese parents and in many areas they still are not allowed or cannot afford more than one child.



I really wonder what the prices are for "substitutes." How do the prices of adopting a child from China compare to adopting a child from Malawi?