A new generation of caregivers takes control of kids

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010

The number of children being raised by their grandparents has risen sharply since the start of the recession in 2007, according to a new Pew Research Center study that found one in 10 children in the U.S. now lives with a grandparent.

The trend was most noticeable among whites, Pew said in its analysis of census data. Those whites who were primary caregivers for their grandchildren rose 9 percent from 2007 to 2008, compared with a 2 percent increase among black grandparents and no change among Hispanics. In all, 2.9 million children are being raised mainly by at least one grandparent, or 4 percent of all children.

For most of the decade, the number of children having a grandparent as their primary caretaker rose slowly and steadily, Pew noted. But as the economy soured, the rise was sudden and steep. Three quarters of the 8 percent total increase since 2000 in the number of grandparents raising their children's kids occurred in the year following the official start of the recession in December 2007.

In another study earlier this year, Pew said the number of households composed of multiple generations is higher than it has been in half a century, because of all the job losses and foreclosures that mark this recession.

The economy is not entirely to blame, however.

There has been a nationwide effort to have children from troubled families placed with relatives like grandparents, instead of in foster homes. Montgomery County, for example, has experienced an upswing in grandparents as caregivers, but most of it is from urging them to "step up to the plate" so that their grandchildren don't enter foster care, said Angela English, administrator in the county's Child Welfare Services.

In addition, some military parents facing multiple deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan have entrusted their children to the grandparents.

Nonetheless, advocates for intergenerational families say the recession has dealt multiple blows to grandparents. Some are caring for grandchildren while their own children have gone away to look for another job or get career retraining. Meanwhile, many financially strapped states and counties have cut programs that provided financial and emotional support to so-called kinship families, including respite care and support groups. The families often are dealing with added emotional issues that stem from job loss. And many grandparents have diminished financial resources themselves as their retirement funds have been decimated by the economic downturn.

"If there's been a loss of a house, a loss of a job, the need to retrain for another, you're talking about people whose dreams have changed and whose lives have dramatically changed," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which focuses on intergenerational issues. "They have to come to terms with that, as well as the new roles they all have to assume."

Groups that offer assistance are being sought out by grandparents seeking help for the first time in their lives.

"People who haven't struggled or needed services in the past need it now," said Cathy Tompkins, director of the undergraduate social work program at George Mason University and a researcher in gerentology who is working with Fairfax County to assess needs of people providing kinship care.

One grandmother who attended a recent meeting held by Fairfax County's Family Services agency told officials her granddaughter used to invite her friends over, but as a teenager never entertained at home because all her friends were living with their parents, said Tompkins who attended the session. The grandmother wanted a support group for teens so they would not feel so alone and "different."

Amy Goyer, a family expert with AARP, said anecdotes she has heard suggest the recession-related increase is large.

"That's the thing abut this recession; it's hit so many people at different socioeconomic levels," she said.

According to the Pew study, almost two-thirds of the grandparents who are primarily responsible for their grandchildren are under 60. In the 2000 Census, the average age was 57.

"These are not necessarily grandparents who are retired," said Goyer. "They're preparing for retirement, and a lot of times their retirement savings is going down the drain. They lost it or it was undermined by the economic situation, and now they're spending it on family. It puts the grandparents' generation in jeopardy as well."

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