Work and love: Klarman Fellow studies childcare as a 20th century labor issue

In the second half of the 20th century, women joined the labor force in large numbers, creating a need, in many families, for childcare – and raising questions about assigning a value to such care.

“How do you transform unwaged labor into wage work on a large scale?” said Justine Modica, Klarman Postdoctoral Fellow in history in the College of Arts and Sciences. “How do we take something that’s ostensibly so highly valued socially and then try to attach an economic value to it?”

Writing a book about childcare as a 20th century labor issue, Modica is examining the history of care that families and childcare workers have configured in recent decades, describing conflicting approaches to how to grow and shape the childcare workforce.

“Justine’s work brilliantly illuminates one of the nation’s more pressing, urgent social issues: the struggles over the distribution, respect and remuneration of caregiving labor,” said Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, associate professor of history (A&S), and Modica’s faculty host.

Through archival research and interviews, Modica is gathering information from many actors in the childcare industry, including corporations, federal agencies, parents and – her central focus – the people who perform the labor itself.

Her research has revealed a tension around attaching an economic value to the work of caring for children. It’s a tension she experienced herself while working as a nanny, her first full-time job after college. In one family, she was valued as a member of the family, but was caught off-guard when asked to accept a hotel room, rather than wages, for a weekend of work, an offer she refused. In the other, she was treated with professional courtesy and distance, more like a staff member.

“I had two extremely different experiences as a nanny,” Modica said. “The closeness and informality of my relationship with the first family I cared for was exactly what I enjoyed, but also what contributed to their assumption that they could compensate me in-kind. With the second family I was just one member of a large staff. I was paid more and I had health insurance.”

When it came down to it, access to health insurance was critical, Modica said, noting that only about one fifth of all child care workers in the United States have health insurance provided through their employer.

“For years afterward, I kept wondering: why is it so hard for Americans to think about something as being simultaneously labor and love? Why are these mutually exclusive?”

Modica said she’s come to recognize an expectation in education and non-profit work, as well as in childcare, that workers ought to sacrifice to do work that they love.

Moreover, available care configurations can pit parents, who can only pay so much, against childcare workers, who need to be paid: from daycare centers to care in the home of the children (a nanny or au pair) to care in the home of a care giver (known as “family childcare”).

Instead, Modica thinks, the needs of parents and providers are actually connected. She points to the Worthy Wages movement of the 1990s, started by Seattle daycare center workers who were deeply invested in not making the burden of their wages fall on parents, because they saw that parents could not pay more for care.

“They believed the way to better wages was through public provision, and that only legislation would open childcare to more families and make childcare work a better, more stable job,” Modica said, adding that part of the campaign was to educate parents, as voters, to this idea. “They saw how important caregivers were and that they needed to get parents involved.”

The National Child Care Staffing Study, which first came out in 1989, found that the single greatest predictor of childcare quality was wages of providers, because compensation of providers was directly related to worker turnover, which increased from 15% in 1980 to 41% by 1990s.

The Worthy Wages movement eventually formed a union and affiliated with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) but didn’t ultimately succeed and there hasn’t been another viable union movement for daycare center workers since, she said.

It’s surprising to some, she added, that family childcare providers have been the segment of the industry most successful at organizing: “They’re isolated in homes – their shop floor is spread across tens of thousands of living rooms. But with the overhaul of welfare in the mid-1990s, and the expansion of childcare vouchers for former welfare recipients, family childcare expanded.”

These workers had access to a funding mechanism through the state – in essence, a shared employer, Modica said. In several states, family childcare workers were able to bargain for higher reimbursement rates, paid time off, and some limited health care funds.

“The compensation is still grossly inadequate, but family childcare providers were able to use collective bargaining and collective power as tools to improve their compensation,” she said. “Center-based daycare workers have had a much harder time figuring that out because most centers are funded primarily through parent fees, and most parents can’t afford to pay more for care.”

The story of childcare labor bridges gender history and labor history, making Cornell, with its resources in history (A&S) and labor (Cornell’s ILR School) an ideal place to research and write, she said. Her faculty host, Kohler-Hausmann, has written extensively on welfare and its impact on women, and Cornell’s ILR School offers events and resources such as the Kheel Center in ILR’s Catherwood Library.

Connections with faculty in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and Cornell Law School add further dimensions.

“Justine has been an amazing addition to the Department of History and broader Cornell community,” Kohler-Hausmann said. “Her writing is destined to make a huge impact on the broader scholarly and popular conversations.”

With the Klarman Fellowship, the ability to research for three years without other responsibilities is an unparalleled opportunity, Modica said. “I love teaching and I miss it, but the Klarman has allowed me to go all over the country – and to other parts of the Americas – talking with scholars and people engaged in the history I study and conducting archival research. The Klarman is giving me the opportunity to make my book project into something I hope will have an impact in both women’s history and labor history.”

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Two people sitting at a table, conversing in a shady area of a park
Chris Kitchen Through archival research and interviews, Modica is gathering information from childcare workers.