NYT Mag's Adam Davidson Hails 'Trophy Nanny' as 1% Status Symbol

In his role as the Lord Haw-Haw of yawning income disparity, Adam Davidson reports on the world of elite nannies in his latest New York Times piece, “The Best Nanny Money Can Buy.” Child caregivers perceived to be good enough for the superrich (which means they might need to possess other skills, like speaking Mandarin, cooking restaurnt-level meals, being able to ride and groom horses or sailing) make big bucks!

Davidson interviews one Muneton, who comes from a “very poor” background in São Paulo. She immediately convinces Davidson that she is very good at doing what adults think would be fun for kids (in fairness, she does have stellar references). Muneton, who works through an agency, gets $180,000 a year, plus accommodations, plus a bonus. The family presumably pays the agency a fee, and one assumes is also covering payroll taxes.

The article makes clear that top nannies are 'positional' goods. Discussing the industry with Cliff Greenhouse, president of the Pavilion Agency, Davidson writes:

"Alas, it seems that there just aren’t enough 'good' nannies, always on call, to go around….

And then there’s social climbing. 'A lot of families, especially new money, are really concerned about their children getting close to other very affluent children,' Greenhouse says. 'How do they do that? They find a superstar nanny who already has lots of contacts, lots of other nanny friends who work with other high profile families.' There are the intangibles too. 'I’m working with a phenomenal Caribbean nanny right now,' Greenhouse says. 'She is drop-dead beautiful. Her presentation is such that you’re proud to have her by your children’s side at the most high-profile events.'

Davidson mentions but underplays the “always on call” part:

"A typical high-priced nanny effectively signs her (and they are almost always women) life over to the family she works for. According to Cliff Greenhouse, Pavillion’s president, that kind of commitment is essentially built into the price. Many clients are paying for the privilege of not having to worry about their child’s care, which means never worrying if their nanny has plans. Which, of course, she can’t, pretty much ever."

Let’s consider what Muneton actually makes. Let us charitably assume she works 80 hours a week, which is what being a live in and being always on call amounts to (aside: the article says she has her own apartment, but given that it’s on Central Park West which is awfully scarce on rentals, I suspect this is the market value of a particularly nice studio or one bedroom that was carved out of one of the large apartments. The first apartment I bought was just such a CPW one bedroom and I had a studio apartment next door. These odd apartments, when they’d come up, used to be bid on by neighbors and usually integrated back into the big units; I infer they now might be spruced up and used to house the high ticket nannies).

New York State, where Muneton works, has a nanny law that stipulates time and a half for overtime. She also gets a bonus but I saw no mention of vacation.

But let’s assume 50 weeks at what would be charged as 100 hours (note under the New York law, overtime pay for live-ins doesn’t start till 44 hours a week, but Muneton may not qualify, given her supposedly separate apartment, and in any event, her elite status suggests she should be compared with ordinary workers). My calculator says she gets $36 an hour, which is more than double what Davidson says is the going rate for part-time nannies in Brooklyn ($15 to $18 an hour). That’s a handsome premium but hardly spectacular. The impressive total results in large measure from the fact that she racks up so many hours. And she can bank it all because she doesn’t pay rent.

The offensive part of this article is the way Davidson thinks about the nanny equation. He clearly wants to believe the pricing is somewhat efficient (those rich people must be getting something for their money!). For instance, he speaks to an academic who says there are no studies on how nannies impact child development, but at the close suggests the market works because a graduate student working with the same academic gets merely what an ordinary Park Slope nanny fetches. Why is that OK? Oh, she’s fussy about what families she is willing to work for and sets boundaries on her hours. Wage slaves take note, look at the huge hit in pay that Davidson deems to be justified for daring to bargain over your work conditions.

Yet earlier on, Davidson was forced to acknowledge that the pricing is actually arbitrary. What makes for a good nanny? Who knows? But the reference points he uses for “price is unrelated to quality” are wine, vitamins, and car tuneups. A better comparison would be doctors, given both their importance to most people versus the average patient’s inability to judge their skill level or the appropriateness of their recommendations (even good professionals have bad days). Patients instead rely on proxies, such as bedside manner and too often in America, willingness to run lots of tests.

The other point Davidson ignores completely is that nannies, even nannies to the rich, are exploited. That’s less likely in the status-neurotic types who are desperate to find a French speaking nanny who can also curate their art collection, but it is nevertheless widespread. Consider this example that we linked to earlier:

"A criminal complaint filed this week against a wealthy New York woman alleges that she kept an undocumented immigrant as a house worker for years, paying her just 85 cents an hour for nearly constant labor, and making her sleep in a walk-in closet.

The immigrant, identified only as “V.M.” in documents filed by prosecutors, was reportedly promised $1,000 a month to come live with Annie George at her vast estate in New York. The woman came from Kerala, a state in India, only to discover that her job at the 30,000 square foot Llenroc mansion was one of servitude, with 17-hour days seven days a week, with no days off even when she was sick.

She cleaned the mansion from top to bottom, cooked for the family and watched over George’s five children for approximately 67 months before the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received a tip about the woman’s working conditions. Federal agents swooped in to her rescue last year, and now George, 39, is facing a criminal prosecution."

For every V.M., there are probably 100 cases that fall short of slavery (yes, Virginia, rich people keeping servants incarcerated have been charged and convicted of slavery, see Sante Kimes as one example) but are nevertheless abusive by virtue of inadequate pay for incessant work. And mundane exploitation is pervasive. Per an article in Slate:

“Overtime violations are rampant,” says Nicole Hallett, one of several attorneys who staff the Urban Justice Center’s free, monthly legal clinic. Hallett notes the problem is worst among live-in employees, who make up 30 percent of the domestic workforce. “I have yet to see a live-in worker who’s being paid overtime at the correct rate.”

Davidson unwittingly provided evidence: when Muneton first came to the US, in 2002, she worked for a rich family for $100 a week. The minimum wage then was $5.15 an hour. Even if she was working only 40 hours a week, she was grossly underpaid. And remember, meager wages aren’t the only indignity of being “help”. You are a member of the family in a bad way, subject to all its neuroses and foibles, but if you try asserting any boundaries, odds are high that you will be fired, pronto, and never again allowed to see the children to which you’ve become attached.

And that raises an additional issue: Muneton was lucky to be able to trade up, employer-wise, the way she did. Contrast her story with that of Patricia Francois, who’d worked as a full time nanny in Westchester County for $300 a week, then got a job in Manhattan which paid $500 for 50 hours a week. She had options that would have been more lucrative, but fell in love with the child, and ignored the warnings of the last caregiver that the husband was difficult. A New York Magazine article describes what transpired:

"What happened next is a matter of fierce dispute—and the subject of a lawsuit now working its way through federal court. In Francois’s version of the story, the husband came home in a bad mood and began berating his daughter for not practicing her lines for a holiday skit. Even after he took her to another room, Francois could hear the girl crying.

'Mr. Matthew, stop it!' she shouted.

'It’s my child!' he said.

'I don’t care!' she said. 'I’m taking care of her too!'

She was about to leave when she overheard him tell his daughter she was going to have to do without her nanny from now on. Hearing the girl’s sobs, Francois went to comfort her, and that’s when, she claims, things escalated. According to Francois, her boss called her a “stupid black bitch” and told her he hoped she died “a horrible death.” She shouted back and he slapped her, she claims. When Francois tried to call 911, he grabbed her hand and twisted it. She fell, he lost his balance, too, and then he punched her in the torso and the face. She struggled to get free and rushed out the door.

A doorman helped Francois down to the lobby, where she sat on a bench, tears streaking her face. The police came and filled out a report, describing a bruise below her left eye and a bruise and cut on her left hand. 'I was inclined to arrest him that evening,' an officer later said in a deposition, 'but … Ms. Francois vehemently did not want to press charges at that time.' With the mother away, she was afraid the girl would wind up in the custody of child welfare if the father was arrested.

A lawyer who lives in the building walked into the lobby and saw Francois. 'My initial reaction [was] that this woman, poor woman, had been mugged out on the street,' he later testified in a deposition. He brought her up to his apartment, gave her a glass of water, then took her to the ER at Roosevelt Hospital."

The couple claimed Francois assaulted the husband. That strains credulity, particularly since she also played the reporter a series of voice messages from the husband, wife, and daughter begging her to come back.

And it was Francois’ efforts to publicize her case and organize nannies that led to the landmark New York legislation being passed:

"After fourteen years as a domestic worker, Francois has little to show for her efforts. No savings, no job, no leads. In recent days, though, she’s had reason to feel optimistic. Over the past six years, she’s made some 25 trips to Albany to lobby for the Bill of Rights. When the State Senate passed it last week, she was looking down from the balcony, tears in her eyes. “It will be reversing decades and decades and decades of injustice,” she says. Now she had something to show for her years of hard work, something more than the photographs of the children she helped raise."

But you’d never know that if you lived in the World According to Adam Davidson, in which he wanders into an upper crust world, and declares it, and by implication, the operation of capitalism, to be just swell.

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