Harvard for toddlers

Google provides the world's greatest day care -- for millionaires.


Amy Benfer
July 8, 2008 1:12AM (UTC)

Just last week, I invoked the cliché that, for many families, the cost of having two parents in the workforce can be so high that it doesn't even make economic sense. But even my eyes bugged out when I saw the price tags attached to the on-site day care at Google, voted "Best Company to Work For" by Fortune magazine for two years running. Seriously, sit the eff down before you read these figures. When I asked my boyfriend to take a wild guess, he was off by 40 grand.

Under a new proposal, reported by Joe Nocera in the Times, the cost of day care at Google would jump 75 percent. Want to drop off your infant? That'll run $2,500 per month (up from $1,425). Crunching numbers, Nocera calculates that parents with two kids would end up paying $57,000 a year, up from $33,000 a year. Just to put that in context, the median household income in 2006 was around $48,000, with an average personal income of $26,000. A year at Harvard (including tuition, room, board and fees) comes out to $47,215. A bargain!

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You may be thinking, as I did, that the average Google-size salary has little in common with that of the average American. But after a bit of poking around (I Googled it!) I realized that, while the company has plenty of pre-IPO millionaires, its salary range is actually slightly below Silicon Valley standards. Some employees (though presumably very few) can make $35,000 or under. You know how much those unlucky few must be loving sharing the spa rooms and organic cafeteria with their multimillionaire brethren. But even families who make a pretty comfortable income presumably would have a tough time paying that bill -- you know, after paying for trivial things like housing, food, diapers and electricity.

And perhaps the creepiest part of the article is that, according to Nocera's reporting, it looks like Google could have provided cheaper slots to accommodate more parents. Instead the company chose to cut the number of available slots, in part by raising the price so that fewer parents could afford to place their children in the first place.

The whole baroque story is amusing in a bang-your-head-against-the-desk kind of way, but to summarize: the first Google day care center, Kinderplex, opened three and a half years ago and was run by a company called CCLC. According to most accounts, it was a perfectly pleasant place -- with low student-teacher ratios and organic food, of course -- but it did not subscribe to the Reggio Emilia philosophy, favored by, among other people, Susan Wojcicki, a prominent employee and the sister-in-law of co-founder Sergey Brin, to whom some conspiracy-minded employees seem to ascribe an undue amount of influence. Google then opened a second day care center, called the Woods, which did follow that philosophy. Apparently, it took Google a while to notice that this fancy new day care was costing the company a whopping $37,000 per child per year in subsidies. Meanwhile, the wait list to get into either center ballooned to 700 employees for 200 spots -- which meant parents were waiting two years or more.

OK, soaring costs, ballooning wait lists, what do you do? Get this: First, the company decided to fire the cheaper provider and make both centers more like the one that was gobbling up all the money. Second, it initiated the previously mentioned stratospheric price hikes across the board. Finally, it started charging several hundred dollars to remain on the wait list.

According to Nocera, when the changes were announced, "some parents wept openly." But hey, it worked. Faced with prices greater than most people pay for housing, many employees dropped off the list, magically solving the space crunch. At a company meeting, according to several parents, Brin "said he had no sympathy for the parents, and that he was tired of 'Googlers' who felt entitled to perks like 'bottled water and M&Ms.' (He later denied the quote through a spokesperson.)"

To which I say, hey, keep the drug store candies. Plenty of companies wrestle with how to deal with on-site day care, but as a leader in technical innovation and employee satisfaction, Google could have done much better than turning its day care into a luxury for the highest bidders. As Nocera writes: "Google may be providing the greatest day care ever, but so what? It doesn't matter how good the day care is if only its wealthiest employees can afford to use it. If Google had really wanted to do something path-breaking about its day care crisis, it would have spent less time creating elitist day care centers and more time figuring out how to 'scale' day care for everybody no matter what their salaries." And just for fun, I'd like to point out that the originators of the much-lauded Reggio Emilia Approach were Italians living in villages ravaged by World War II. While I haven't thoroughly researched how many among them were multimillionaires, I strongly suspect they may have educated their preschoolers with fewer resources than those available at the Greatest Company in the World.

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Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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