Every year, around 20,000 young women and men come to the United States as au pairs to care for children, learn about American culture and improve their English. The cultural exchange program is organized by the federal government and is especially popular among families who need flexible childcare at an affordable rate.
Host families pay a sponsoring agency $8,000 upfront and the au pair a $195.75 weekly stipend, room and board and a $500 education credit. In return, the au pair can work up to 45 hours per week. When all the funds are counted, au pairs are left with $4.35 per hour in their pockets.
The au pair program falls under the State Department J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, which was originally set up to promote U.S. foreign policy objectives between the U.S. and other countries through educational and cultural exchange. Initially, it brought foreign scholars to the U.S. but has since been extended to 15 programs, including the au pair program.
The combination of cultural exchange and affordable childcare has sparked a lot of criticism. Opponents of the program argue that the wages are set below minimum wage laws while long working hours prevent au pairs from embracing the cultural exchange and education. Advocates of the program say it provides a unique vignette into a foreign culture and helps stem rising childcare costs in America.
So, how come au pairs only cost $4.35 per hour?