Shortly after Dr. Mister Historiann graduated from medical school, we moved from Baltimore to Somerville, Massachusetts so that he could start his residency. We had that golden month of June, 1994 before he needed to go back to work, and back in the day when we had more time than money, we decided to hop a ferry over to Nantucket with a couple of bikes and a reservation at the Youth Hostel there. We enjoyed a couple of days hiking, biking, and lazing around on the beach.
For both of us, I think, the most memorable thing about that trip was talking to our fellow youth-hostellers, most of whom were young Irish men and women who had come to Massachusetts on a special visa that permitted them to work for a summer and then return to Ireland. The trick for most of these kids was to move to a resort area and to find a day job there, so that the beach was right there on their days off. Most of the young men sought construction work–which as I recall offered decent (although illegal, under-the-table) wages of $15-$20 an hour. Most of the young women interviewed for restaurant jobs and summer nanny jobs, and the money people were offering for the latter was truly appalling. Families who were spending $2,000 to $4,000 a week (or more, perhaps much more) to rent a summer house on Nantucket were offering these young women $150 a week to stay with their children 24/7, because of the supposedly fabulous “perk” of having room and board with the family. (As if having a live-in nanny were more of a favor to the nanny than to the parents, who also had on-call 24-hr. child care.) I was appalled–talk about your patriarchal equilibrium. There was no question that the women working as summer nannies, even without the room and board, would never earn them $15-$20 an hour.
Isn’t it fascinating to see what people are willing to spend their money on, and what they’re not willing to pay for?
I had a little flashback to that trip to Nantucket when I read a comment by Lalaroo this morning on last week’s post about colleagues who shirk their work on the pretext of family responsibilities. Lalaroo is a child-care provider, and she writes,
I work as a pre-school teacher for a full $8.75 an hour. This is what I like to call “not a living wage.” If my daycare made the childcare more “affordable” for the parents, you can sure as hell bet it’d mean a paycut for me. And you really do get what you pay for. My boss said at a meeting “Don’t mention to the parents that you’ve been peed on and spit up on, etc, because they pay us a lot of money for you to get peed/spit up on!” Well, they may pay you “a lot” of money, but I sure don’t get paid enough to get spit up on, peed on, cried at, and have tantrums thrown at without losing my ever-present smile! What I’m saying is, I’m less likely to be the eternally cheerful, never unpleasant, and always super-fun and creative daycare worker if I don’t make enough money to pay my bills. Not to mention the fact that none of the women working at the daycare could afford to enroll their own children in it without deep discounts.
I am sure that most of the parents who entrust their children to Lalaroo aren’t as wealthy as those parents on Nantucket fifteen years ago who were happy to pay exorbitant rent but were eager to cheap out on the child care. This gets to a bigger issue than the selfishness of the ruling class and its exploitation of immigrant women’s labor. Why don’t we as a society think we need to pay a living wage to child care workers? In asking this question, I’m not suggesting that individual families should pay more for child care–although many might be able to, I understand that child care is a huge part of the family budget in most middle-class families. I’m wondering why we collectively don’t subsidize early child care centers or preschools so that the people providing the care can have health care, pay their bills, and save for retirement. (We do this for children once they get to Kindergarten, through the public schools: why do we resist a commitment to subsidizing day-cares and preschools? It seems like it would be relatively small change by comparison to the K-12 commitment.)
Why isn’t it at least as well-compensated as working in traditionally male jobs as auto mechanics or construction? A large part of this puzzle is of course that it’s traditionally women’s work, and that all kinds of traditional women’s labor is underpaid, especially care work. Too, there’s that universal, transhistorical expectation that women should volunteer their labor rather than expect to be paid for their work. But, I sense a resistance in the culture to paying child-care workers more and dignifying it as a profession because we don’t want to admit the extent to which we rely on other people to look after our children. If we paid child-care workers more, that would suggest that what they were doing is work rather than volunteer fun with the kids, so it’s easier to pay less and pretend.
What do you think?