Figments, Race:
Crack Baby Epidemic

Back in 1991, I had a job selling mutual funds, and it gave me the chance to talk to a lot of people. One of them was a teacher, and I asked her what issues in education we should expect to see in the near future.

"Crack babies," she said. All across the country, little mentally retarded and physically compromised babies were being born to crack-addicted mothers, and in a few years they were going to swamp the education system in the US. Their special needs were going to drain time and money away from the regular kids. The system was going to collapse under the sheer number of learning-disabled, congenitally-damaged kids that it was going to have to support.

It wasn't just education, either. The medical infrastructure was due to sag under the weight of these kids. Reports estimated that each kid would, over their lifetime, rack up medical bills in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. And every year more of them were being born.

But then the crack babies didn't show up. Few people were actually surprised when they didn't show up because they failed to show up so gradually. Most people just sort of forgot about it.

It turns out that the estimates for the number of crack babies was based on a single survey of mothers of newborns in a hospital in a poor urban neighborhood. This survey found that some number of these mothers, most of them poor, had used crack or powder cocaine at some point in their lives. That figure, that percentage, got turned into the percentage of women nationwide who were using crack while pregnant, which got turned into the percentage of babies born with "crack baby syndrome." Where the figure for lifetime medical bills came from I don't know, but it got multiplied by the number of crack babies to get an astronomical dollar figure foretelling the doom of our medical system.

The crack baby epidemic was a popular fallacy because it appealed to the common esthetic sense. In the minds of those dreading the onslaught of crack kids, prosperity in the United States was going to be undermined by fornicating, crack-smoking, black, teen-age, welfare mothers who doomed their innocent children to stunted lives and (to top it all off) were going to cost us all lots and lots of money. Race, welfare, drugs, sex, babies, and money, all hot items in the popular imagination.

April 2002

Link:more about the crack baby myth.