Public issues stay private as Park Slope parents plumb underclass

 "Need a great babysitter? Our wonderful babysitter, Betty*, is available for full- or part-time work. . . . She has been with us for three years and has become an indispensable part of our family. . . . "

The flyers are everywhere in Park Slope— and so are the nannies.

The most visible daytime population of this community, the black women— white toddlers in tow— gather on park benches, at playgrounds, and on line at the supermarkets. They are the most telling sign that this neighborhood, once populated by young artists too poor to swing Manhattan rents, has radically upscaled.

''You have to really like kids,'' says nanny Patsy Ryan.
Sandra-Lee Phipps
''You have to really like kids,'' says nanny Patsy Ryan.

Now, those artists have become "artist-types." Painters have been promoted into account managers at ad agencies; one-bedrooms had for $750 in 1990 go for $1200 today; and young, once-earnest liberals casually employ undocumented workers without offering health insurance, pension, or benefits. At $8.50 an hour, West Indian nannies are the adored and relied-on underclass, the lynchpins of an underground economy propping up thousands of white, upper-middle-class families here who've come to depend on the labor undocumented workers provide.

It appears to be a perfect solution. There is a paucity of legal, licensed day care; there is an abundance of undocumented immigrants looking for under-the-table pay.

But the "solution" is fraught with problems.

"This is probably the line of work most readily available to a woman from the Caribbean," says Patsy Ryan, an immigrant from the Grenadines who's been in New York for two and a half years. Ryan, who declined to reveal her immigration status, is one of half-a-dozen West Indian nannies at Prospect Park's Ninth Street playground on a cool autumn morning. She is pushing twin 13-month-old boys in the swing with either hand. "You get this kind of work through word of mouth, everybody does," she explains, tossing a look over her shoulder at the group of nannies on a nearby bench. With a deft double-swipe of a tissue, she gets two runny noses then restarts the swings and the conversation. "You have to really like kids, but if you do, it's a good job. I've worked for very nice people and haven't ever had any problems." With 10 sick days and two weeks' paid vacation, Ryan is satisfied with her off-the-books pay. "It doesn't bother me about the health insurance and pension. These jobs are not pensionable, so what's the use of worrying?" It's inevitable, Ryan shrugs. "Pensions are for long-term jobs and a nanny is not long-term. Children grow up and you become expendable."

Meanwhile, as Ryan tends the twins, relatives in the Carribean look after her own two children, a typical arrangment which reflects both an ambivalence about the quality— and safety— of New York schools and an intention to return to the Islands.

Ryan's is a common story.

Today, there are 600,000 Caribbean Americans in New York City, most of them in Brooklyn, and thousands more who are undocumented. Legal work means getting papers, but the backlog at the city's Immigration and Naturalization Service has over 280,000 immigrants in line to become citizens— at least a two-year wait. Meanwhile, 111,625 New York City immigrants are waiting for green cards. To qualify for such "legal resident" status, applicants must persuade the INS that no Americans are qualified for the work they're pursuing— no mean feat when that work is unskilled labor. Recognizing that their chances of getting work papers are slim, especially without an employer sponsoring them, West Indian immigrant women do what immigrant women have always done: domestic work.

For Park Slope's West Indian nannies, working without papers and being paid off the books, the implications are profound. If they have children or family in the Islands, they cannot return for visits. Nor can they legally bring family to the U.S. They can't qualify for most government benefits, get loans from banks, or build 401(k)'s. Without a social security number, the women can't open a bank account, get a driver's license, or buy a house. They rarely have health insurance.

For many West Indian women, it is not simply the practical difficulties of getting a green card for themselves and getting their children over here that prevents them from applying, it is also the belief that New York is just a way station. "What do I need a pension for, I'll not be here when I'm old," explains Sandra, a nanny minding two toddlers in Prospect Park, while her own two kids live with her mother in Barbados."I'm not making this my home. I'm going back to Barbados one day."

Sadly, plans like Sandra's rarely pan out. "It's not unusual for immigrants— particularly those who are in close proximity to the U.S.— to hold out hope that they will return or retire back home," says Margie McCue, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. "But once they start putting down roots here, it rarely happens." Most grow old right here. What that means is that there are rarely plans, or money in place, for retirement. Women, who may have relied on a husband's pension, are most often the losers: Twice as many women as men retire poor (15 percent vs. 7 percent). Among minorities the figures are even worse, with 29 percent of black women and 28 percent of Hispanic women dropping below the poverty line when they retire.

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