Au pairs

Definition: Live-in child-care assistants, who are typically young immigrant women, who work in exchange for room and board and opportunities to learn English
Significance: Au pairs have helped satisfy the need of working parents to find care for their children at a reasonable cost while enabling young foreigners to visit the U.S.
American mothers traditionally worked within their homes. However, after the United States entered World War II in 1941, the growing needs of the national labor force and new economic demands on families led many women to take jobs outside their homes and to seek alternative arrangements for their child care. Parents who lacked available assistance from extended family members sometimes arranged for daycare services. However, a preferred arrangement among families in the middle and upper classes was to provide substitute care within their home. In-home services allowed children more continuity and permitted parents more flexibility in their schedules.
The pool of available live-in child-care providers generally included local college students, young women from midwestern states, and immigrant women. Caregivers from foreign countries, who often did not have proper working papers, afforded reasonably priced choices for child-care services. The initial legal provision for immigrant child-care workers was limited to visitor’s visas for those who had bona fide friends or family members with whom they would live for up to one year. Because there were limited options available for hiring domestic child-care services at a time when demand was growing, many parents employed helpers who lacked legal documentation.
In 1985, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) received a proposal from the American Institute for Foreign Study requesting the addition of a new category, “au pairs” (from French au par for “equal to”), to the exchange visitor program. This new classification was added to the list of opportunities available under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. It provided oneyear J-1 visas to foreign students aged eighteen to twenty-six who wished to become au pairs in America. Au pairs were given the opportunity to experience life in America and receive room, board, and cash stipends in exchange for forty-five hours per week of child care. Despite some skepticism about the appropriateness of the new plan under this act, a pilot au pair exchange program was instituted, renewed, and maintained.
Under the official au pair program, which was overseen by a bureau of the U.S. Department of State, authorized agencies evaluated potential au pairs and host families and partnered the two. In contrast to “nannies,” who are technically salaried employees, au pairs are legally regarded as members of their hosts’ households and not as servants. However, although au pairs are not officially classified as employees, federal guidelines require that their stipends must meet minimum-wage standards.
Federally authorized au pairs are in the United States through an exchange program that is intended not to lead to permanent residence, but to allow one- to two-year stays. Au pair candidates must be young and proficient in English, have proof that they have completed their secondary education, and pass a background check. Many other child-care workers fill similar roles in U.S. homes. Some of these individuals have successfully obtained other work visas. Those people and their hosts who have not obtained legal work authorization can face potentially costly legal consequences if discovered. In 2001, the regulations for the au pair program were revised to include an alternative EduCare program allowing fewer hours for child care and more for studies. Au pairs may originate from any country with U.S. diplomatic relations, but most come from western Europe.
Cynthia J. W. Svoboda

Further Reading
  • Bloodgood, Chandra. Becoming an Au Pair:Working as a Live-in Nanny. Port Orchard, Wash.: Windstorm Creative, 2005.
  • Griffith, Susan. The Au Pair and Nanny’s Guide to Working Abroad. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2006.
  • Miller, Cindy F., and Wendy J. Slossburg. Au Pair American Style. Bethesda, Md.: National Press, 1986.
  • Wrigley, Julia. Other People’s Children. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
See also: European immigrants; Families; Foreign exchange students; Higher education; Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

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