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Why Do the People Raising Our Children Earn Poverty Wages?

Women who care for poor kids are often mothers living in poverty themselves.


The following article first appeared on the   Nation.com. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters   here.

Shanita Hargrove lives in a sunny second-floor apartment in Newark, New Jersey, not far from Mayor Cory Booker’s house and, all too often, an electric roadside sign marking a recent homicide. On a winter morning, she was caring for two infants: 7-month-old Shawn and 5-month-old Jade, whose older sister had been with Hargrove years before. The babies were in and out of sleep, lying faceup on a colorful trio of yoga mats.

Hargrove handles children with the easy skill of a baker handling dough. She leans Shawn against her wide bosom, cooing in a Southern alto. She massages his back and feet and lightly touches his neck, which stimulates good hormones, she says.

She’s been in this work a long time, having helped raise her younger brothers in North Carolina. “The majority of us providers, you’ll find out, were taking care of children when we were children ourselves,” she tells me.

As an adult, Hargrove found herself in New Jersey, the single parent of a young son and daughter, working days as an office manager and nights in fast food. “The hardest part was being separate from them for that long, even more than the hours and being drained.

“Sometime later, I had stopped working and gotten on public assistance, and when I didn’t have childcare, I found out about Programs for Parents,” she adds, referring to Newark’s childcare training and referral agency. Through PfP, Hargrove obtained care for her son and later became a licensed provider. Today, she tends to kids in her predominantly African-American community, many of whom are covered by public childcare subsidies.

Despite Hargrove’s thirteen years of caregiving experience, her income is unsteady and sparse. Her earnings have ranged from $0 for weeks at a time to a short-lived career high of $3,000 per month, which brought her household to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. “I’ve had to go on and off food stamps several times—especially when I had my children, before they went to college—depending on how the childcare was going,” she says. Hargrove has even qualified for Medicaid.

Subsidy rates are low, and she charges the same—just $165 per week for fifty hours of infant care—to private-pay clients. With one or two children, she can’t make ends meet, and Hargrove rarely has the state maximum of five in her care. “There are times that you have no clients, so if you get a drop-off—somebody just needs you for a few hours—you do that.”

Hargrove does other side jobs as well: typing résumés, cleaning houses and watching elderly relatives. In the summer, she tries not to use the air-conditioner. She also bargain-shops for groceries and baby supplies—difficult without a car—and accepts donated furniture from struggling clients, sometimes in lieu of payment. “You know what they’re going through, and you give them a break,” she says. “But usually it comes around, because as you bless these parents, they will bless you.”

* * *

Throughout New Jersey, more than 2,000 in-home or “family childcare” providers tend to infants, toddlers and school-age children from low- and middle-income households. These providers are unlike nannies, who work in private homes and need not register with the state. As independent contractors, they are also distinct from daycare center employees entitled to the minimum wage and overtime.

The typical in-home provider is a middle-aged woman of color with children of her own. Like Hargrove, she enters the field to raise her own kids and earn a living minding others’. The government pays her to watch the poorest of these children, whose parents—often single moms—are in welfare-to-work programs or juggling minimum-wage jobs. She also cares for private-pay kids, whose parents, though low- and middle-income, do not qualify for help.

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