When social conservatives tell stories about the way things used to be, the nuclear family is the star of the tale. A man, a woman, with their two and half children behind a white picket fence: Nostalgia for a Leave It to Beaver way of life infuses the politics of the Christian right. More recently, that nostalgia has taken the form of a more policy-oriented approach, contributing to the idea that a decline of two-parent households creates a culture of poverty. “You don’t have to like the suburbs or minivans or soccer or even monogamy to comprehend that the biological nuclear family’s stability and repertoire is tops over the long run,” the sociologist Mark Regnerus once claimed in The New York Times.
There are dangers in attributing trends in poverty to sexual immorality, the dissolution of traditional marriages, and other cultural pathologies. Welfare becomes suspect, since to buoy struggling or broken families is to exacerbate poverty, not solve it. Furthermore, the Leave it to Beaver structure only works when men get livable wages, enough so that women can stay home from the workplace. And marriage rates alone don’t tell us much about the causes of poverty. In communities of color, for example, the presence of two-parent households still doesn’t compensate for a startling wealth gap between those households and their white counterparts.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to glean some information about the state of American poverty from shifts in household structure, and one trend in particular offers unique insight into the weaknesses of the welfare state. The number of grandparents raising grandchildren steadily increases: In 2014, the Census Bureau reported that 6 percent of American households contained a co-resident grandparent and grandchild; in 1970, that figure was 3 percent. Sixty percent of those households were headed by grandparents, which translated to 2.7 million grandparents caring for grandchildren; a 7 percent rise from 2009, PBS NewsHour reported in 2016. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these households always lack a parental presence—the bureau also reported that most children living with a grandparent had a single mother present in the household. But in these homes, grandparents take on significant caretaking responsibilities.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, as Generations United’s executive director, Donna Butts, told me. Military deployments, sudden parent deaths, and incarceration can all put a grandchild in the care of a grandparent. But the rise in families headed by grandparents hints at more recent social changes. “What’s new are the complexities that the families face—the reasons they are needing to come together, and especially in light of any drug epidemic we see an increase in relatives being called on to help when parents aren’t able to,” Butts explained.
Amy Goyer, an AARP expert on family and caregiving issues, says the organization has seen an “uptick” in grandparents caring for grandchildren. When grandparents step into caregiving roles, she said, it’s “not usually for a good reason. It’s usually because there’s something happening with the parents, even in cases where the parents are still involved somewhat.”
Goyer cites the opioid epidemic as a factor. But Caroline Cicero of the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology says fluctuations in the job market also influence the numbers. The availability of jobs in rural areas can shift childcare responsibilities to grandparents, as can unpredictable work hours or seasonal labor. “Certainly with more and more women over the past few decades who have been working, there’s more need for grandparents to step in and help,” Cicero said. “At the same time older adults are working longer and not giving up their jobs.”
Added Butts, “One of our concerns is that the older adults sacrificing to raise children are spending down their retirement savings or staying in the workforce to be able to survive and pay for school fees and the educational needs of a child. We’re going to have this whole group of vulnerable older adults, who, rather than invest in their own security, invest in the next generation.”
Because grandparent-headed households pair up two vulnerable populations—minors and adults who are at least approaching retirement age—their prevalence points to more generalized precarities. Households headed by grandparents are disproportionately more likely to be under the poverty line: Introduce a public health crisis like the opioid epidemic into the equation, and the weaknesses of the American welfare state become heavier burdens for families to carry. “It’s pretty much every state—except maybe four or five—that have seen an increase in the number of children in foster care,” the Child Welfare League of America’s John Sciamanna told The Washington Post in 2017. With more children out of parental custody, there’s a bigger role for grandparents to take.
Although the opioid epidemic isn’t the only reason more children are now in the care of grandparents, understanding it is a way to grasp the consequences of scarcity. The opioid epidemic is a created phenomenon, and it is possible to see the shape of it by looking at who it has enriched. The Sackler family, as Esquire reported in 2017, owes no small portion of its $14 billion fortune to Oxycontin. A number of counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia recently filed suit against pharmaceutical wholesalers for pumping small towns full of drugs, sometimes resulting in hundreds of pills for every one person in a rural community.
We also have to understand why so many users become hooked on pills: They’re often in pain from the consequences of hard, physical labor. “We have a population that works in coal mines or mine-supporting industries doing lots of manual labor, lifting equipment. Doing that for 10 to 12 hours a day for 15 to 20 years, or more, is a bad deal,” one West Virginia doctor explained to Vox in 2017. A study released by the National Bureau for Economic Research also documents an increase in opioid overdoses that correlates to increases in local unemployment rates. The poorer a region is, the more likely it is to suffer from high rates of drug abuse. Quantifiable economic factors, not culture, bear the real blame.
The same factors that can place a child in the care of a grandparent also complicate a grandparent’s caregiving experience. “They tend to sacrifice their own health,” Goyer explained. “Some don’t take their medications because they don’t have the money to get that filled that month and they need to do something for the grandchild that has a physical or mental health issue.” Caring for grandchildren can require grandparents to purchase bigger homes or move to new neighborhoods, and those expenses can be difficult to front even if a grandparent is still in the workforce.
Despite these challenges, experts and academics say there are clear benefits to keeping children out of foster care and in homes with capable relatives. The picture that emerges from the data is not one of broken families, but of intact families struggling with limited resources. “Even though it may be tough for a grandparent to take care of a toddler or play football with a 10 year old or stay up late for a teenager to come home, there’s a stability there, and the experience of being a grandparent who’s done this before is very helpful,” Cicero said.
“They’re more likely to stick around, which is more likely to keep brothers and sisters together instead of splitting them apart,” Butts said of grandparents. “Kids who are being cared for by relatives also report that they are more likely to feel like they’re loved, like they are cared about and that they have that kind of security that is so essential for a child to develop.”