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Adam Davidson Presents the Trophy Nanny as 1% Status Symbol

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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:

And, 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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42 comments

  1. bob

    Domestic servitude as the job of the future. It’ll cover those college loans, and if you are really lucky, daddy might throw you one on the side.

  2. Middle Seaman

    The poor as the really rich who are overpaid, underworked, getting something for nothing and not paying any taxes is an old daemon in the Republican Pantheon. Davidson doesn’t bother to do the basic calculations. For him, $180,000 is way high for a poor person to make even if she is highly qualified for the unique job and works like a slave. She is not rich.

    Interestingly enough, the famous competitive capitalist market disappears when the rich have to pay for services. The lady seems to be worth at least twice of what she gets.

  3. Goin' South

    How long will it be before the 1%-ers take up the wearing of powdered wigs? The execrable Davidson’s description of these rich fools is reminiscent of 18th century France. At least they recognize that we live in a “who you know” not “what you know” world with their use of nannies to improve their kids’ social contacts. We can imagine the conversations. “My three-year-old played with a kid whose chauffeur once worked for Jamie Dimon!!!” Do they create Facebook pages for their toddlers and try to get big shot toddlers to friend them?

    How laughably desperate they are.

    It all reminds me of Grace Slick’s line:

    Don’t change before the Empire falls. You’ll laugh so hard you’ll crack the walls.

  4. bmeisen

    At least 2 issues to note here:

    1) Davidson’s fate as an apologist for the 1%. The tradition of jounalism at the service of the monarchy is thriving. German has a wonderful work for it: “Hofberichterstattung.” It is, despite repeated denials, a core competency of the NYTimes and the MSM in general. Their performance during the invasion of Iraq should have provided sufficient proof. I suggest that they continue to exist today because of the internet – they alienated enough of their pre-internet readership to go bankrupt several times.

    2) The rich and their nannies. It’s like buffing up your bio by scrounging up a seat on the board of some “charitable” organization – having kids. Obligatory if you want to be paid several million a year. The rub is finding someone to do the parenting, and then finding a way of keeping your kids separated from those of the poor. Experience has proven that when the classes mix too many rich kids realize that they in fact are not smarter or more talented than everybody and that in fact some of the poor kids are smarter and more talented. This has a de-stabilizing effect on the character trajectory that the rich program in for their offspring.

  5. OMF

    The article was paid for. Instead of wasting your time dissecting its content, find out who commissioned it and why.

  6. M

    This reminds me of something that has been really bothering me. I went to a very good college – not Ivy League but considered academically the equivalent, well-known for producing 1%ers – and in my most recent alumni magazine there are 3 curious help wanted ads. One for a nanny that promises top benefits (including 3 weeks vacation and health benefits), one for a full-time ‘family medical retainer’, and one for a personal assistant that offers $90,000 – $100,000.

    This really put me off. So this super fancy education kids are getting now is basically so they can become more highly-paid personal servants to the currently established rich?

    I know there are a lot of commenters here that went to Ivy League schools, I was wondering if the same ads appeared in other alumni magazines.

    1. Historicaecon

      I am an Ivy-League graduate, and what you’re noticing is a real thing. The better educated the nanny, the more of status symbol they are. It’s like a low-rent trophy wife of the intelligentsia variety. Creepy.

    2. IF

      They are not looking for egg donors anymore? Blonde, tall Jewish women could make a quick and easy 50k during my time. Sometimes Asians too. I wonder if it is the same people writing the ads…

    3. tompain

      Those same three ads have appeared in the last two issues of the University of Pennsylvania’s alumni magazine.

  7. Dave of Maryland

    It would seem that you missed it on a bunch of levels.

    First, the nanny is live in.

    Second, she’s the official mistress.

    By “official,” I mean the trophy wife can unburden herself of her meaningless hubbie by seeing he goes to the help rather than prowl about town. Keep his wandering all in the family. Less chance of unexpected disease. Know where he is at 2 am.

    Should the nanny get pregnant, the baby is aborted.

    So at the initial interview, the hubbie may think he’s hiring a live-in babysitter, but his wife has other ideas on her mind.

    And so does the nanny. On this level, she sure does. Nursing the kids, that’s a sucker’s position. Wrap the hubbie around her finger, make a shrewd pact with the wife, and she’s got long-term job security.

    It’s a win-win-win. For all three.

    And you want to talk about overtime???? Give the “nanny” a couple of years and she will have her own 16 year old “assistant” who will do the actual nanny work. A strong-willed “nanny” can come to completely dominate the household. And it’s good training for the 16 year old. Some day she’ll have her own hired family to look after.

    As many a family has learned, to its surprise.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You didn’t read the piece. Muneton is 49 years old. She’s not mistress material, at least for someone in the 1%. And she comes via an high end agency that collects references. That’s the sort of place that actually would threaten litigation if one of the nannies were preyed on.

      And go visit a park in NYC and see who the nannies actually are. Please.

      1. René

        Looks can be deceptive! Shortly after my graduation, my Austrian friend George, the chemistry student, came to visit me but he would stay with his aunt in Notting Hill together with her only child and nanny. Within a few days, my geeky friend George managed to not only seduce the shy looking nanny but also bang her unconscious. I said, “you did what?” George replied, “I rather clumsily banged her head against the wall whilst having sex!” They even had to go the hospital to check everything was o.k. Fortunately, everything was fine so no litigation.

    2. ebear

      >>Should the nanny get pregnant, the baby is aborted.<<

      Sez who? Maybe she switches it with her employer's baby? Like they'd ever notice.

  8. briansays

    the wife best be aware of the younger and more attractive nanny who seeks to move up to becoming wife #2

    as i recall
    tiger woods wife while coming from an affluent swedish family was working as an au pair for another golfer’s family when she met tiger

  9. Historicaecon

    A roommate of mine in Brooklyn had just moved out from a position of something like the slavery situations described: She served as a live-in nanny/housekeeper with an Upper East Side family in return for a closet to sleep in while she tried to get a career as a freelance writer going. After a year (a year!) she realized she was being terribly exploited and made plans to leave. The husband took her out to dinner and said that he expected her to stay with them “for a long time,” and pressured her to stay on. I’ve had other extremely well-educated female friends who became high-paid nannies, only to find that they were in a similar position to Greek tutors in the Roman Republic: High status slaves. All that the market will bear.

  10. Brent Musburger, Jr (news anchor)

    Breaking News! This Just In!

    Not to be outdone by the hoity-toity Jill Abramson acquiring the Puppy Franchise for the NY Times, or that disgusting bald freak Adam Davidson acquiring the Nanny Franchise for NPR, Donald Graham (of the Washington Post) announced today that Ezra Klein will be covering the Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge from July 21, 2012 until August 25, 2012 in Bridgehampton Polo Club, Long Island.

    Klein’s hard-hitting, no-holds-barred brand of reporting will take investigative journalism to new heights, while featuring front page interviews with the likes of Ralph Lauren, Brooke Shields, Heather Graham, Chloë Sevigny, Christy Brinkley, Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein, as well as reviews of polo products such as clothing, boots, helmets, saddles, mallets, uniforms, whips, knee pads, team shirts, supplies and everything polo….

    Story developing…

    http://www.debretts.com/social-season/mercedes-benz-polo-championship.aspx

  11. PQS

    Gads. All of it sounds so tawdry. No wonder so many rich children turn out to be so horrible. (Perhaps in support of the 1%, the government should offer combat pay to nannies – I know I’d rather face an IED than a single day in a home with these people…)

    And what is the career path for these nannies after some good times while young? It is a job for life. Which sounds good at first, then upon second thought seems more like a caste. You cannot go out to the “real world” and get a job with actual wages doing nanny work. Even Head Start teachers and part time preschool instructors have to have some college, if not a 4 year degree in child development. And they don’t get paid anything like $50K or more a year.

    Just more proof of how much the 1% just can’t help themselves as they exploit their way to hell.

  12. Lambert Strether

    I understand that the new status symbol is no longer the yacht, but the submarine. (To be fair, if your yacht is larger enough, you can store the submarine on deck.)

    Armed with Poseidon missiles, no doubt. Seriously, why not?

  13. Capo Regime

    We regular folks have to get more down market nannies…..of put kids in day care so that everybody can have the perpetual cold…

  14. F. Beard

    A servant who acts wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully, and will share in the inheritance among brothers. Proverbs 17:2

  15. Bam_Man

    The only good thing about working for these nouveau-riche scumbags is that they are “very busy” and not around much. Dealing with these people on a frequent face-to-face basis would be utterly unbearable – regardless of salary.

    1. tech98

      In my experience working with/for most “highly successful” people are aggressive, exploitive douchebags in person, distinguished by manipulation and politics rather than rare talent. There are some exceptions of course, but a much greater prevalence of nasty personality types than in the middle class population.

      A lot of “success” comes from being more ruthless than your competitors, of not being restrained by the sense of fairness or treating people well most of us are raised with.

      Living with such people 24×7, with their snotty authoritarian attitudes toward “servants”, should be a six-figure job.

      1. F. Beard

        A lot of “success” comes from being more ruthless than your competitors, tech98

        A gracious woman attains honor, and ruthless men attain riches. Proverbs 11:16

  16. Peripheral Visionary

    My parents faced more or less the same choice that many other middle-class parents face: of being a comfortable two-income family with the children being cared for by someone else, or being a one-income family on the edge of survival with the children being cared for by the mother and father. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that they chose the latter. In retrospect, I didn’t need new clothes or the best toys or a better car to ride in, but the time I was able to spend with my mother growing up was priceless.

  17. Glen

    $180K for a nanny. That’s a different world than the one I live in for sure.

    All things considered, if I had to choose between a country that had a real middle class, and a country where we create a couple thousand people that can spend $180K for a nanny, I guess I’ll have to go for real middle class.

    1. F. Beard

      I guess I’ll have to go for real middle class. Glen

      Agreed. Capital concentration for economies of scale DOES NOT require wealth concentration among individuals.

      1. Glen

        It also seems to lead to bad policy. If we get to a point where a small percentage of extremely wealthy people get to buy public policy (as we have now) then we will get policy decisions which are dramatically out of touch with the demands of the majority.

        Why do you get banks bailed out when 98% of the people contacting Congress opposed it?

        Why do you get mandates to buy healthcare when the majority would rather just be able to have Medicare?

        Why do you get continued low taxes for billionaires when the majority wants them raised?

        Why do we stay in wars when the majority of the people want out?

  18. craazyman

    are we ready for the Che Guevera T-shirts yet?

    Yves, are you ready? Are you ready to flaunt it in Central Park — in a Che shirt with a beret? Sipping a chilled Pinot Grigio at the Boat House Cafe on a summer afternoon talking financial revolution and the stimulating effect of differential marginal tax rates?

    Cracked me up to see Steven Colbert’s investigation of OWS wearing his Che outfit and black beard attached to his chin with a rubber band. OWS were good sports about it too.

    I’m about ready for it. I’ve reached the point where I still think he was a total lunatic, but at least I feel the energy of his motivation. What he must have seen riding that motorcycle. It could have made anyone a lunatic. It could have turned Mother Teresa into a suicide bomber if she’d been a little more scrambled upstairs. Most people are crazy anyway to begin with & it doesn’t take much to knock them over like a bowling pin.

    So I’m ready to tax the rich. Anyone making more than me is rich, as far as I’m concerned. Even if we just blow the money up in the air and let it float wherever it wants to like confetti.

  19. psmith

    Today I was reading _Emma_ and came across the part where Mrs Elton is trying to persuade Jane Fairfax to let her procure her a job as a governess:

    “You do not know how many candidates there always are for the first situations. I saw a vast deal of that in the neighbourhood round Maple Grove. A cousin of Mr. Suckling, Mrs. Bragge, had such an infinity of applications; every body was anxious to be in her family, for she moves in the first circle. Wax-candles in the school-room! You may imagine how desirable! [....] With your superior talents, you have a right to move in the first circle. Your musical knowledge alone would entitle you to name your own terms, have as many rooms as you like, and mix in the family as much as you chose; — that is — I do not know — if you knew the harp, you might do all that, I am very sure; but you sing as well as play; yes, I really believe you might, even without the harp, stipulate for what you chose; — and you must and shall be delightfully, honourably and comfortably settled before the Campbells or I have any rest.”
        “You may well class the delight, the honour, and the comfort of such a situation together,” said Jane, “they are pretty sure to be equal.”

  20. Commenter1980

    I’m a public sector worker in, roughly, the 25-30% but have several friends from university in the 1% (though we’ve never talked about it explicitly, some of them are almost certainly in the 0.1%). I love them all dearly, but after some conversations my principal consolation is the all-to-obvious fact that all of those assets aren’t actually making them any happier.

    My god but it’s hard to have a real conversation with very, very smart but very, very rich people who are just about paralysed with worry about issues that are so fundamentally alien to what the rest of society gives a s**t about that they might as well live on a different planet. The best-adjusted and obviously intellectually curious kids I know amongst my friends are the children of teachers and other professionals who can’t afford not to worry about their kids directly.

  21. racing

    Hello there I very much liked reading your post. I’m considering starting my own blog soon Best Wishes.

  22. Zlati Petroff

    I am sorry, but this kind of discombobulated, unfocused writing undermines the rest of your blog. I came here every day to get great information, then I ran into this and I am truly stunned.

    What exactly is the point of this entry? You start with a critique of Adam Davidson’s piece, take it nowhere, then switch to berating cases of nanny exploitating which do nothing to change the fact that the nanny in the op-ed is indeed doing very well ($36 an hour is a ton of money, no matter how you want to spin and twist it).

    What does this kind of writing contribute to social justice?

    Somehow we are supposed to conclude that $36 an hour is inadequate and that the nanny in the article is ultimately suffering at the hands of capitalism? This makes no sense. If anything the article shows that if you have the right skills and are willing to put in a shift, yes, you may do well for yourself.

    What is your alternative? $50 minimum wage for nannies regardless of qualification and a month of vacation per year? No nanny industry at all?

    Indeed, what is your hypothesis? That everyone is always exploited, no matter what, no matter where?

    That no success story can possibly be a success story if it in any way involves doing any kind of work for anyone that makes more than $100k a year?

    This is stunning, it really is. The penetrating insights regarding the mortgage market, Wall Street, etc. have apparently been replaced with directionless efforts to assault anything and everything that has to do with the upper class.

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