When Grandparents Raise Their Grandchildren

More children are living with their grandparents than ever before in contemporary society. This phenomenon leads to a complex set of issues and outcomes for grandparents and the children for whom they care.

Researchers at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research are studying the well-being of children who live with their grandparents, and how these arrangements affect grandparents’ well-being. Rachel Dunifon, professor of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell, co-authored a review article published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that delves into these questions.

Most importantly, Dunifon and her team found that family structures are diverse, and the specifics matter. Children whose grandparents assume the role of raising them face vastly different challenges compared to children who live with their parents and grandparents in a “three-generational” home.

Grandparents as caretakers

Data show that about 2 percent of U.S. children are being raised by a grandparent with no parent in the household, referred to by Dunifon as “grandfamilies.”  Most often, parents voluntarily give up custody to the grandparent for a variety of reasons including substance use, abuse and neglect, incarceration, mental health problems, death and becoming a parent at a young age.

This is not an easy road for grandparents. Older adults who take custody of their grandchildren are more likely to be poor. About two-thirds of these families live in households with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Grandparents in these families are less likely to be employed, less likely to receive help with child care and more like to suffer from physical disabilities and chronic health problems.  These grandparents experience higher levels of stress compared with other grandparents and are more likely to face mental health and financial problems.

Children raised by grandparents are more likely to experience challenges as well. Because they are often living in an unofficial arrangement, they are less likely to qualify for social services. And they are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems.

However, the study notes, grandfamilies have numerous strengths as well.

“As I interviewed grandfamilies across New York, the thing that struck me the most was the great warmth and appreciation grandparents and grandchildren have for each other and how much they value the important role that they play in each other’s lives,” Dunifon said.

Three-generation households

Data show a significant jump – approximately a 30 percent increase – in the number of children living in three-generational homes since 2001. Children who are black, Hispanic and Asian are more likely to live in three-generational homes compared to white children. And these children are more likely to live with a single parent rather than two parents.

But even within three-generational homes, financial well-being is diverse.

In homes with two parents and grandparents, the parents are more likely to own the home, suggesting that the grandparent moved into the parent’s home. But in homes with a single parent and grandparents, the grandparent is more likely to own the home, suggesting that the parent moved into the grandparents’ home. These households are more likely to experience poverty.

This ownership patterns shed light on “who is helping whom,” Dunifon explained.

Based on the data available, it is difficult to determine how these living situations effect the well-being of grandparents, parents and children without understanding the specific circumstances in each situation.

For example, when teen mothers live with their parents and child they are more likely to finish school and become employed. There is some evidence that grandparents in three-generational homes experience more stress and depression, but this evidence isn’t conclusive. There is also evidence that children in single-mother, three-generational homes do better in school and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors compared to those living with a single mother alone.

There are a few take-home messages from the body of research. First, we need more data to fully understand the complexities of grandparents living with and caring for grandchildren. It would be especially helpful to follow these families over time to determine the long-term effects of various family structures.

Second, and more immediately, it is important to consider how today’s social policies effect grandparents and the grandchildren for whom they care. Especially in households where the grandparents are the primary caregivers, any changes or cuts in services to the elderly will also effect other family member, especially the children. Similarly, cuts to programs for young families with children may increase their dependence on grandparents.

“This research shows that the well-being of elderly adults and young children are often intertwined,” Dunifon said. “It is important for our policies and programs to recognize that.”

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