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.

Childcare workers perform that most vital labor, rearing our young. But across the country, they are invisible and poorly paid, without healthcare, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation or other benefits. In 2011, the median income of all childcare workers was about $19,000; 17 percent were living in poverty, and for “self-employed” in-home providers, the figure is likely much higher. Subsidy levels are based on a fraction of “market rates,” rather than providers’ expenses, and cover far fewer hours than are actually worked. Out of empathy with the families they serve, some providers charge even less to those ineligible for subsidies, who must pay fully out of pocket.

Nearly everyone agrees on the importance of high-quality childcare and early education. It’s good for child health, safety and development; it’s good for parents who work; and, as an industry, it’s good for our economy. Universal childcare seemed fleetingly possible in the 1940s and early ’70s, but today, only 2.4 million kids receive subsidized care (about 16.1 million children under 18 live in poverty), and early education is a minimum-wage job.

The funding is primarily federal, but states have broad leeway in use and distribution. In fiscal year 2011, the dedicated childcare “block grant” totaled $10 billion nationally. In fiscal year 2012, New Jersey spent $227.8 million in combined federal and state subsidies, serving about 43,000 children per month—down from nearly 63,000 in 2010, when stimulus money still flowed. New Jersey’s subsidies generally pass through local childcare resource and referral agencies (CCR&Rs), like Newark’s Programs for Parents, which oversees 632 in-home providers and about 165 licensed daycare centers.

Thousands of in-home providers are paid as little as $118.80 to $183.80 per week for each full-time, state-subsidized child. At these rates, workers must care for the maximum number of children—five in a given shift—to live above the poverty level.

“New Jersey pays particularly low rates, some of the worst—for infants, it’s 38 percent below the market rate. So providers after a while can’t do this; they can’t afford it,” says Helen Blank, director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.

* * *

On a spring afternoon, Nancy Jimenez reads to a few distracted toddlers in the basement of her Newark home. My eyes adjust to a brightly hued array of chairs, mats, toys and books. I watch 2-year-old Allison amble from one end of the room to another, sidestepping Gabriel, busy with a dance. Anahi, the observing type, plops onto a caterpillar-shaped pouf.

Jimenez is a wiry, energetic woman with the cultivated patience to calm babies and bake elaborate themed cakes to order—a side business. Sixteen years ago, she left a stable, well-paid post office job to care for her daughter, who’d been spanked at a daycare center. Jimenez wanted a gentler way.

“My mom was a single mom,” she says. “My father got killed. At least I had the Boys & Girls Club. If not, I probably would have been on the corner selling drugs.”

In a sense, Jimenez runs her own Boys & Girls Club. She once had a 2-year-old dropped off in a disheveled state: shoes on backward, hair uncombed, teeth unbrushed and without a coat. “That’s a child I want to have, because I know at least here I can wash his face, wash his hands, fix his shoes, comb his hair, so at least he gets it somewhere.”

On another occasion, she took a “problem child” who’d been kicked out of daycare. The boy, it turned out, was struggling to reconcile three languages—English, Spanish and Creole—that Jimenez and her husband speak between them. As a nationally credentialed provider, she recognized the child’s potential.

The emotional rewards keep her going, but Jimenez bears many frustrations. “The money doesn’t add up. Unless you have a nice, steady flow of kids or a significant other helping you out, it’s not going to work. Programs for Parents gives every subsidy-parent eight hours of childcare—but if a parent works full time, eight hours, how are they going to go to work and come back?”

In fact, New Jersey’s “full-time” subsidy rate is based on only thirty hours per week—“six or more” hours per day—of childcare. This hardly covers the average parent’s workday of eight or more hours plus the commute, but there’s no bonus or overtime pay for anything over thirty hours. The provider either charges a late fee, as PfP recommends, or works the extra hours free. As state officials have pointed out, however, providers do get paid when children stay home sick, and thirty-hour rates are “not outside the standards across the entire childcare community.”

Low rates are also standard. The calculation method is partly to blame: each state conducts an annual market-rate survey of childcare fees and then tries to pay providers around the recommended seventy-fifth percentile (few states do). But the market reflects what parents are willing to pay, not actual costs.

In theory, providers could raise their private-pay rates or impose strict late fees to make up the difference; but Jimenez, like all the providers I spoke with, says this is unrealistic. Her clients are simply too poor—for example, 21-year-old Maria Cordova, who is supporting herself and two daughters on her $7.25-per-hour wage at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“The reality is, they can’t pay a late fee—they can’t afford to. They catch the bus to and from work,” Jimenez says. This goes for private-pay clients as well—those ineligible or on the waiting list for subsidies—whom she sometimes charges less than the public rate. (In February, 210 kids were on the waiting list, reduced, rather inexplicably, from more than 10,000 a year earlier.)

Jimenez cares for middle-class children too. I observed her with Gabriel Velez, a 3-year-old boy with protruding ears and a wide smile. He has been with Jimenez for most of his life, just like his stepsister, whom Nancy cared for some thirteen years before.

It was Jimenez who first noticed a problem with Gabriel’s speech. “Nancy always telling me, ‘Maybe Gabriel have problems in his ear. Talk to the doctor to make a hearing test,’” says his mother, Johana Maysonet, who grew up in Puerto Rico.

When Maysonet, who was working sixty-hour weeks at Newark Airport, took her son to a physician, she was told that Gabriel may be autistic. She and her husband were distraught but promptly sought help: a speech therapist began working with their son five times a week, twice at Jimenez’s house.

Gabriel improved so much with Jimenez that Maysonet dreaded preschool, which is free to 3- and 4-year-olds in many New Jersey districts. “He talk when he wants, so he can’t say ‘help.’ I know when he needs help, Nancy knows—but somebody else not gonna know,” she says.

* * *

Passaic, New Jersey, is an old, workaday city that was once an active mill town populated by European immigrants. Today, the area is lower-income and increasingly Latino. Of its 70,000 or so residents, around fifty provide childcare in their homes.

Roberto Cabañas has knocked on the door of every provider in Passaic. On Burgess Place, I follow him into the apartment of an elderly African-American woman with glasses. She has us stand awkwardly in the dim kitchen, where Cabañas, a soft-spoken 30-year-old organizer with a linebacker’s build, squints to read from his clipboard.

He explains that he is with New Jersey Communities United, a nonprofit group doing outreach for the Child Care Workers Union. The woman is skeptical: “I didn’t get no material from them, so I figured there was no union.” Cabañas apologizes and talks up a future meeting. The woman shows no interest, then shows us out. In the car, Cabañas calls her a “flat-liner.” “Those take a lot out of us,” he says.

Organizing a home-based workforce is like gathering dandelion seeds on a windy day. Family childcare providers are dispersed and isolated, with shifting, unpredictable hours. They are low-income, which means they’re busy and prone to moving or switching jobs, and a significant number do not speak English. Legally, they are not considered employees.

Despite these obstacles, in New Jersey and fourteen other states, in-home providers paid through public subsidies now belong to a union and can bargain collectively. The blueprint strategy—to organize workers home by home and secure their bargaining rights through an executive order or legislation declaring them “employees”—was inherited from the Service Employee International Union’s home health-aide campaigns. (Minnesota childcare workers’ recent victory is being contested in court.)

The first union contract, signed in 2007, established a historic increase of more than 20 percent in pay rates and a grievance procedure for New Jersey’s providers. Susan Fago, a longtime Camden-based provider who now works part time for the union, says, “We had payment issues, getting contracts, getting referrals—it was like crawling into a black hole. I felt right from the start that the union is just what this business needed.”

But the contract lapsed in 2010, and providers heard little from the union—run in half the state’s counties by Local 2779 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and in the other half by Local 1037 of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). Ken McNamara, president of Local 1037, acknowledges that the momentum waned after the first contract. And it didn’t help that the union’s community partner, ACORN, which had done the day-to-day organizing with providers, was famously brought down nationwide in 2009.

“When the contract expired and no one cared, Programs for Parents went crazy,” says Jimenez, now a union leader or, as she calls it, a “shop stewardess.” She was distressed by the union’s neglect and by “e-child care,” a phone-based check-in/check-out and direct-deposit system abruptly established in 2012, via a $2.5 million contract with Xerox. According to New Jersey officials, the union had received advance notice of the automation.

Last year, in the wake of e-child care, Local 1037 began reorganizing providers in their counties with the goal of negotiating a second, better contract (it’s still being bargained). To do so, it enlisted Cabañas’s nonprofit group, New Jersey Communities United, an ACORN successor launched in part by the CWA.

In Passaic and neighboring Paterson, Danisia Valadez, a bilingual provider with twenty-five years’ experience, is a well-known fighter for Latina workers and parents. On my first visit to her Sherman Street home, she embraced me like an old friend and sat next to me on a Sponge Bob–blanketed couch.

“A lot of friends, providers, they call me: ‘Oh, Danisia, what happened?’” she says. “I call [the agency] or [go] with her to see what happened. I like it, helping people.”

Before the union, Valadez fought constantly with 4Cs, the CCR&R in Passaic County. Payments were delayed for three or four months at a time, and the staff routinely lost paperwork and berated parents seeking help. Things have since improved, she says, though she continues to be vigilant as a shop steward.

Over the years, Valadez has cared for hundreds of children—and mentored their parents, including frazzled teenage moms—at all hours, day and night. She currently works from 7 am to midnight, five days a week; in 2010, she took twenty-four-hour care of three young brothers when their mother, Reina Carrasco, was sent to a state-mandated drug-treatment program.

Carrasco was a good mom in a bad situation. The boys’ father provoked daily fights; she became depressed, shrinking to a sickly 100 pounds, and found solace in marijuana.

“I trusted her unconditionally,” Carrasco says of Valadez. “If anything happened, I wanted them with her—not even my mom, not my family.”

Valadez and her husband welcomed the boys and comforted them with home-cooked meals. “I feel great because the children need it, because I helping the community,” she recalls. The state compensated her for only twelve hours of every twenty-four-hour day.

Carrasco, who’s been clean, in school and working for the last two years, still takes her children to Valadez. “She’s teaching them over here—the numbers, the colors, puzzles…. On top of that, they’re learning Spanish!” she says. “I think, because of her, I am where I am now.”

* * *

On the way to Shanita Hargrove’s house, we drive past Stratford Place in Newark’s South Ward. The street is barricaded, blocked by police cars. Mary Szacik, Cabañas’s co-worker at New Jersey Communities United, describes the area’s bad reputation, though it seems less dangerous than forlorn.

Hargrove is a protector—of children, and of her neighborhood, too. These days, active in the union, she also looks out for her fellow providers. “Does she always wait in the doorway for you?” I ask Szacik, who, being white, is conspicuous on Hargrove’s block. “Always,” she says.

“The world outside, I want the children to know it’s different here,” Hargrove explains. “I provide some relief from that.”

She believes in the lasting impact of care: “That negative atmosphere—you keep that as far away as possible, so the child is not filled with the toxins of the world. Once it’s there, it’s like mold: it continues to grow until the child becomes toxic. Then it creates problems for the teachers in schools, and that child becomes a teenager, abusive toward the teachers and staff. And then, once the teenager is out here, what’s going to happen?”

She tells me about a young man from the neighborhood shot dead by the police. He was not a good boy, she says. He was loved but damaged by his family, and everyone suffered for it.

We sit quietly with the story, looking at baby Jade. Hargrove’s expression softens.

“Don’t you just love her eyes?”

At least once a week, our blogger Greg Kaufmann reports on the struggle against poverty in America. In his latest dispatch, he calls for  Congress to hold hearings that will give indigent citizens a chance to tell their stories.