Who benefits from the au pair program?

I’m writing this post from more of an economics-y perspective than usual. I used to be super suspicious of this approach because I read it as cold and selfish. I hope you’ll take me in good faith here as caring about au pairs, about people who could become au pairs if they were allowed to, about host families, and about other childcare workers. I seriously considered being an au pair, and I’ve done stints as a daycare worker and a nanny. While that’s not the same as being an au pair or a professional long-term childcare worker, I do think I have some basic understanding and compassion for everyone involved here.

We’ve hosted au pairs for the last 4.5 years, and I have mixed feelings about it. But I want to lay out some things that I think are misunderstood about the program.

The main objections I know of to the au pair program:

  • The program is exploitative. Au pairs earn less than the minimum wage. It isn’t truly focused on cultural exchange, and is really a way for American families to get cheap childcare. 
  • Some host families break the program rules.
  • The program undermines American workers.

Background:

The basics of the US program: the government allows au pair agencies to facilitate matches between au pairs and host families, and then issues temporary work visas to au pairs.  Their legal status is some weird hybrid of an exchange student and an employee. Au pairs must be unmarried childless high school graduates between 18 and 26. Host families must house and feed the au pair and pay $500 toward some kind of education for them. Au pairs cannot work more than 10 hours a day or 45 hours a week, and cannot do any work besides childcare for the host family, and cannot do any other work. Both au pairs and host families pay the agency for things like screening, the au pair’s travel to the US, and having a local staff member who mediates problems. The arrangement lasts one year by default but can be extended as far as two years.

The au pair program in Massachusetts changed after the state court decided that a different set of laws applied, meaning that au pairs would be paid the state minimum wage rather than a stipend as in other states, and some other protections that apply to domestic workers now apply to them. So things are currently better for Massachusetts au pairs (except the ones who were laid off when the cost jumped). 

On bad host families:

  • It’s absolutely true that some host families are exploitative and disrespectful to au pairs, and the au pair agencies should kick these families out. Any au pair can tell you stories of friends who are expected to work extra hours unpaid, who aren’t given proper bedrooms but expected to sleep in a laundry room, etc. The au pairs are not on an even footing — if they leave their host family, they have only two weeks to match with another family before being deported. Many stay in bad arrangements out of fear of being sent home. As far as I can tell, these families are allowed to stay with the program and continue hosting au pairs. Agencies should be more aggressive in removing such families from the program, and should better support au pairs who leave because of bad treatment, but they seem to be reluctant because most of their income comes from the host families. The federal government licenses agencies, and it should withdraw licences from agencies that aren’t doing an adequate job here.
  • Not all au pairs are lovely rule-abiding people either (one stole money from us), but the families are in general less vulnerable than the au pairs. 

On motivations:

  • Yes, for most families the primary draw of the program is lower-cost childcare rather than cultural exchange. This is fine — we don’t expect families to prioritize cultural exchange when choosing a daycare or school. And it’s no wonder that families want to pay less for childcare: in most states, care for an infant costs more than state college. Charts here. When Lily was a baby, an infant spot at a large daycare cost about $30,000 a year and the cheapest childcare we could find was about $19,000 a year at a poorly-run one-room operation. When we had a second child and an au pair became the cheaper option, it was a relief to switch.
  • Another attraction for families is in-home care. It’s great to not have to get your children out the door to daycare, especially if you work odd hours. An au pair just has to walk downstairs and won’t get stuck in traffic or kept away by bad weather.
  • For au pairs, a lot of the draw is the chance to live in the US for a while and travel in their spare time. (This pandemic year has been a tough one for au pairs because they didn’t get to see the sights as they expected.) For ones who want to improve their English, it offers a lot of language practice. And for those used to living under the watchful eyes of their parents, it can offer a lot more social freedom. And as I’ll say later, the pay is often better than what they could make at home.

On pay: 

  • Au pairs get housing, food, sometimes car access, and a $200/week stipend. (More in Massachusetts.) That comes out to less than $5/hour, while federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. But consider that our last au pair came from El Salvador, where college-educated workers might expect to earn about $5,000/year as a teacher or accountant. By contrast, au pairs in the US make almost twice as much, and have basic living expenses paid. (Families pay quite a bit more than that, but the rest goes to the au pair agency.)
  • My first job out of college was a similar arrangement — I was a “kitchen intern” at a religious center, working as a cook for $200/month plus room and board. In retrospect I’m sure it wasn’t legal, but it worked well for me. When I filled out the sliding-scale form to get birth control at Planned Parenthood, the receptionist was incredulous that my income was so low. But because I had basically no expenses, I paid off a bit of my student loans and had less stress about my living situation than most new graduates. I realize I still had a lot of privilege as a college-educated American. But for young women in poorer countries without a lot of good options, I think this kind of arrangement is still a good chance to save money (or spend it on travel, or whatever they choose.)
  • I worry that saying “the amount au pairs are paid is too low” ignores the question of what would happen if they didn’t have the option of this program. After their time with us, most of our au pairs have gone back to living with their parents. One of them has gone back to her small town in Argentina with no good employment prospects. Another has gone back to a homophobic country after two years of being out and proud in Boston. I don’t know if their long-term trajectory was changed, but I’m glad they had a time of higher income and more freedom here. A third got another visa and hopes to stay in the US, which she feels is safer than her home country. I don’t see how taking the au pair option away from them would have been better or fairer to them.
  • And what if the program required higher pay? That would be better for those who get au pair jobs, but I expect fewer of them would have jobs. Some families would be priced out, as happened when Massachusetts raised wages: many families left the program, and some agencies stopped operating in Massachusetts. At some price, it’s not worth matching with a stranger over Skype and hoping they’ll be a good fit with your family for the next year vs. getting local childcare.

On race and nationality:

  • There’s a weird dynamic around white families hiring people of other races to watch their children. There’s a long history of behavior by employers that ranges from distasteful to truly awful, including deliberately limiting the options people of color had (particularly Black Americans) in order to retain them as cheap labor for childcare, agriculture, etc. 
  • Our last several au pairs have been Latin American, largely because their academic calendar lines up with the time of year we were looking. In some way, it felt more comfortable to have a white American nanny or a white Australian au pair, because I didn’t worry that other people would feel we were somehow being racist. I know I treated them all with the same respect and same adherence to the rules regardless of color or nationality, but I somehow felt like a bad progressive by hiring Latinas to watch my white children. Of course, the urge to look like a good progressive by hiring someone of my same race is harmful — it discriminates based on race, and discriminates against precisely those people who would most benefit from the position. In my experience, the Latin American au pairs we’ve matched with have been better educated and more motivated than au pairs from richer countries who are more likely to be looking for something like a vacation year.

On displacing American workers:

  • My basic response to the concern that au pairs is that they take childcare jobs from US residents: I don’t think it’s fair to favor some people over others because of where they happen to have been born. Overall, I favor more immigration.
  • In my area, the going rate for a nanny is around $40,000 / year, more if they have experience and speak good English. That’s a bit below the Boston median individual income, but once you account for the fact that most nannies don’t pay taxes, I expect they come out better than the typical Boston resident. Even if you believe that US residents have more right to US jobs than other people, it seems like the pay is good enough that there’s room for more qualified workers here.
  • Au pair visas have been frozen for the last 6 months, along with some other visa types, in an effort to protect American jobs. During the pandemic with schools and daycares closed and in-home childcare in particularly high demand, freezing au pair visas seems especially bad. 

Bottom line

  • In general, when the rules are enforced, I think the au pair program is a win-win for host families and au pairs.

Indirect hat tip to Brian Caplan’s piece on tourism and social desirability bias, on why rich tourists spending their money in poorer locations is good even though it highlights inequality – not doing so doesn’t actually help inequality.

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