Infant Morality

Zoë Baird’s withdrawal as President Clinton’s first nominee for Attorney General hasn’t extinguished the debate over child care that her confirmation hearings ignited. While few parents could identify with the $507,000 salary Baud earns as general counsel for the Aetna Life & Casualty Co. in Hartford, Conn., many could understand her decision to employ two undocumented workers, if not her failure to pay the couple’s taxes. For most parents, finding safe and reliable child care is a worrisome task. And to those needing in-home care, undocumented workers are often the best available care givers. “Qualified workers are in short supply and difficult to find, “says Ellen Galinsky, copresident of the Families and Work Institute, a research group in New York City. The author of three books on parenting—and the mother of two grown children—Galinsky, 50, talked to reporter Rochelle Jones about the “piecemeal nonsystem” of which undocumented workers have become a part.

Zoë Baird’s foiled nomination exposed the dirty little secret of child care—the hiring of undocumented workers. How widespread Is this?

What she did is quite common. While the majority of working parents with children under 5 are able to use relatives for child care, 3 percent hire in-home workers. It’s difficult to say accurately what percentage of in-home child-care workers are undocumented, but we know that half or more of all referrals by nanny agencies are undocumented workers.

Why do so many ordinarily law-abiding people flout this particular law?

When Zoë Baird said she was thinking as a mother, not as a lawyer, that rang very true to me. Looking for child care can be very stressful and brings up every anxiety you’ve ever had as a parent. Will my child be safe? Will he come to value the person who cares for him more than me? People do, in fact, find it agonizing. When a parent finds someone she feels is suited to her child, she may overlook the legal issues in favor of what she feels is the best situation for the child—although it is not necessarily the right thing to do.

The underground economy of undocumented workers seems to he flourishing. Why?

Hiring workers who are undocumented has a lot of advantages for some parents. It can be less expensive. It can be reliable. If you’re helping a worker to obtain legal status, you’re just about guaranteed stability in child care during that time. Although there has been a lot of debate over whether these workers are taking jobs away from Americans, we’ve found that because of the low salaries and low status, few American workers are willing to take these jobs. You can work at a fast-food restaurant for what you could earn as a child-care giver.

Is this just a middle-class issue or does it cross economic lines?

There is no question that it’s easier to find good child care if you have the money to pay for it. But even people with good incomes will tell you that they have trouble finding reliable care—in-home or otherwise. The average price for child care in this country is $3,150 per child a year. The cost of good child care can range from $6,000 to $12,000 a year. The parents who are really being squeezed are employed parents who fall just above the poverty line [$13,950 for a family of four] and who don’t qualify for such low-income benefits as child-care vouchers or Head Start.

How do parents find undocumented workers?

They’re not difficult to find. Some parents find them through word of mouth. I’ve had friends place classified advertisements for child care, and every single person who responded was an undocumented worker. I’ve had friends who have contacted three or four different nanny agencies, and three-fourths of the referrals were undocumented workers. Since this is a low-paid profession, there’s a real shortage in the number of people who are willing to do it. Moreover, some undocumented workers are better-suited than other applicants.

In what ways?

Culture plays a role. Many of these care givers may be from countries where child care is valued highly. In Haiti, for instance, child care is considered crucially important work—as it should be. Many undocumented workers are above average in terms of education; some have even attended college. They tend to be people who love working with children.

The other issue the Baird case exposed was the paying of workers off the books, is this common?

The IRS estimates that of the 2 million households that employ domestic help, only one quarter pay Social Security taxes for them. Many employers prefer to pay off the books because it’s a hassle to fill out all the government forms that make the arrangement legal.

Don’t the workers themselves prefer to be paid off the books?

That’s another reason employers do it. The wages are so low—the average in-home child-care worker makes $2.30 an hour—that a lot of workers, undocumented or not, don’t want taxes and other withholdings taken out. Seventy percent of child-care workers earn below the poverty level. If you’re earning that little to begin with, it seems particularly onerous to take home even less.

Are the undocumented workers being exploited?

Some are. We’ve found illegal Mexican workers in Texas, for example, who are being paid $10 a week. In addition, many in-home workers receive no benefits, no paid holidays and no paid sick leave.

Why do law-enforcement agencies ignore this underground economy?

The laws are very hard to enforce. In my experience, if you claim a deduction for a child-care worker and then stop, the IRS starts writing letters asking you why. But if you’ve never filed a claim, there’s no practical way to know that an illegal child-care worker exists. What can the agencies do—pay surprise visits to people’s homes?

What can be done to improve the state of child care?

We know how to provide quality child care. We fail not because of a lack of knowledge but because of a lack of will. When I attended President Clinton’s postelection summit conference, I recommended that he form a commission that would bring together economists and early-childhood specialists to find creative ways to put more money into the child-care system.

Has any good come of the Baird hearings?

Good can come of it if we use this case as a call to action to do something about the child-care crisis. Studies consistently show that the care received by infants and toddlers, the youngest and most vulnerable individuals, is poorer than for any other age group. Child-care workers are underpaid, undertrained and underappreciated. It’s not surprising, then, that they are in short supply.

We finance higher education, so we should be able to figure out similar financing for child care. We also need to change the immigration laws to make it easier for aliens to gain legal status as child-care workers. The problem is not undocumented workers; it’s that the job is not valued for the significant role it plays in a child’s development.

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