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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
 
J Soc Soc Policy. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 June 21.
Published in final edited form as:
J Soc Soc Policy. 2008; 7: 53–69.
PMCID: PMC2888319
NIHMSID: NIHMS88060

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in the United States: Changing Family Forms, Stagnant Social Policies

Abstract

As a consequence of increased divorce rates, the proliferation of single-parent families, and patterns of economic stagnation, parents are increasingly relying on extended family to care for children. In the past few decades, a substantial increase in the number of grandparents raising grandchildren has been observed within the United States. Grandparents who raise their grandchildren are particularly vulnerable, as are the grandchildren in their care; however, U.S. policy currently presents many barriers, gaps, and unintended consequences for grandparent caregivers. In this paper, we use two theoretical paradigms 1) structural lag and 2) the political economy of aging perspective to argue that U.S. policy has not kept pace with the reality of the family and – as a result – those families who are most vulnerable often receive the least support. We propose that as family forms become more diverse a redefinition of the family to one that is less bound by residence and biology, to one based more on function, will be required.

Introduction

Over the past 50 years, profound changes in family structures have altered the way many families organize to raise their children. Family forms have diversified as a consequence of increased divorce rates and the proliferation of single-parent families, thereby increasing the need of parents to rely on extended family support for care of their children. At the same time, economic stagnation--as manifested by declining real wages and the wholesale reduction in jobs paying a living wage and providing benefits--as well as retrenchment in government benefits for single mothers and the working poor, have compromised the ability of parents to effectively raise their children, furthering their need to rely on extended relatives to fill the gap in childcare. Most commonly, grandparents become the principal guardians of distressed families where the middle-generation is incapable of raising their children. Yet, in spite of the proliferation of grandparent-headed families, public policy in the United States has not kept pace with challenges posed by this non-traditional family form. In this article, we discuss how structural features of American social welfare policy have impeded an adequate response to the unique needs faced by custodial grandparents and the grandchildren they are raising. We also examine this issue in general theoretical terms as an example of how family policies often lag behind changing social conditions, particularly when they are predicated on ideological preferences for traditional family forms that resist acknowledging the needs of families that lie outside the boundaries of those forms.

Grandparent Custodial Care in the United States

In the early 1990’s, researchers began to note the increasing prevalence of grandparents raising grandchildren within the African-American community, primarily as an indirect result of parental addiction to crack cocaine (Minkler & Roe, 1993, Burton, 1992). This research into the substantial increase of grandparent-headed households drew attention to the unique needs and challenges faced by grandparent caregivers and the children in their care. As of 2000, nearly 2.4 million grandparents claimed primary responsibility for a coresident grandchild. These included grandparents living in households consisting of three (or more) generations as well as those in skipped-generation households consisting only of grandparents and grandchildren (Simmons & Lawler-Dye, 2003).

When examined from the point of view of the youngest generation it is estimated that 6.5 million children in the United States currently live with at least one grandparent (Kreider, 2004), accounting for approximately 9% of all children nationally and more than half (56%) of those not living with their parents. While multigenerational coresidence is often seen as a way to support the older generation in the household, many of these living arrangements are formed and maintained for the benefit of the children within them. Children living in grandparent-headed households—those most likely to be the beneficiaries of grandparent care—doubled over the last quarter of the 20th century, rising from 2.2 million in 1970 to 3.9 million in 1997 (Bryson & Casper, 1999). Where this trend was initially driven by an increase in the number of grandparent-headed households containing grandchildren and their single parents, by the early 1990’s the composition of these households shifted to grandchildren in the absence of parents (Bryson & Casper, 1999). While some of these households are transitory, the large majority of custodial grandparents in the U.S. have been responsible for their grandchildren for at least one year, with nearly two in five having been responsible for over five years (Bryson & Casper, 1999).

Grandparent caregiving is not equally distributed across social class and racial groups. There is a long tradition for poor families to rely on the labor of grandparents as an adaptation to the high market cost of childcare, their higher than average rate of single parenting, and, the need for both parents to work in the case of intact families. Rates of custodial grandparenting are particularly high in African-American families as a response to historically high rates of poverty and single-parenting (Uhlenberg & Kirby, 1998; Ruggles, 1994), as well as a cultural propensity for extended-familism that has roots in slavery and post-Reconstruction migration patterns. African-American families disrupted and dislocated by slave traders and owners adapted to their situation by constructing alternative family forms that often included a strong grandparent presence. The tradition of extended-familism was reinforced after the Civil War, as African-Americans in the southern states of the former Confederacy moved to the cities of the north in order to find work, often leaving children in the care of relatives (Jimenez, 2002).

This tradition is reflected in the proportion of African-American children being raised by grandparents. Nearly 12% of African-American children live in grandparent-headed households as compared to only 7% of Hispanic children and 4% of non-Hispanic white children (See Figure). Nearly 1/3 of African-American children in grandparent-headed households live below the poverty line. Hispanic and non-Hispanic white children living in grandparent-headed households are also at risk of living in poverty; however, the proportion living in poverty is much lower than that of African-American children. So, not only are African-American children more likely to live in grandparent-headed households, they are also more likely to be living in poverty.

Figure
Percent of Children <18 Living in Grandparent-Headed Households by Poverty and Race/Hispanic Origin: 2004

Grandparent Provided Care a Natural Duty and a Public Good

Grandparents, particularly grandmothers, have long been a significant source of support for mothers rearing dependent children. Arguments have been made that this role is the product of an evolutionary selection process by which children whose grandmothers were both altruistic and lived relatively long past their reproductive years were more likely to survive than those without such grandmothers (Hawkes et al., 1998). In contemporary nations where families live in abject poverty, the very presence of maternal grandmothers still has a positive influence on nutrition and survival of grandchildren (Sear, Mace & McGregor, 2000).

In the developed world, grandparents are the natural buffers between parental inability to provide care and government assistance. Grandparent caregivers are often the last line of defense before placement of children into the foster care system. As such, the child care labor of grandparents save the public from outlaying vast sums of money that would have been devoted to public support of the vulnerable children under their charge (Hughes, Waite, LaPierre, & Luo, 2007). The economic value of grandparent-provided care, as calculated by Bass & Caro in 1996 and converted into current dollars, comes to between $23.5 and $39.3 billion annually; a figure, though not considered in the economic productivity of the nation, represents a substantial cost savings to the public coffer.

By almost every available measure, families in which children are being raised by grandparents are among the most vulnerable in the United States, over-represented by single-mother and low income families who arrived at their status due to substance abuse, teen pregnancy, AIDS, and incarceration in the middle generation (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler & Driver, 1997; Dressel & Barnhill, 1994; Jendrek, 1994a; Minkler & Roe, 1993). Declines in the number of jobs that pay living wage and provide benefits have economically squeezed the working poor and middle-class families, such that they increasingly need to rely on extended family support. In the absence of low cost public alternatives, mothers who are employed full-time, particularly those of marginal means, are among those most likely to receive full-time child care from their parents (Vandell, McCartney, Owen, Booth, & Clarke-Stewart, 2003).

Grandparent caregivers suffer higher than average rates of activity limitation (Minkler & Fuller-Thomson, 1999), chronic conditions (Strawbridge, Wallhagen, Shema & Kaplan, 1997), and poor subjective well-being (Minkler & Fuller-Thomson, 1999; Fuller-Thomson & Minkler, 2000). The children in their care are likely to have suffered from parental abuse, neglect, instability, and/or death and as a result may display high levels of behavioral problems (Billing, Ehrle, & Kortenkamp, 2002; Edwards, 2006), often compounded by high rates of poverty and inadequate housing conditions (Fuller-Thomson & Minkler, 2003; Minkler & Fuller-Thomson, 2005; Mutchler & Baker, 2004).

Although households consisting of single grandmothers raising grandchildren have even higher rates of poverty than households consisting of single mothers and their children, the participation of caregiving grandparents in public assistance programs is relatively low (Brandon, 2005). This suggests that government programs within the United States are not adequately addressing the needs of families in which children are raised by their grandparents, despite the fact that these children and their caregiving grandparents are among the most vulnerable in the nation. That families in the most need receive the fewest resources brings to mind the Matthew effect (Merton, 1968), or more specifically it’s corollary that those who have the least tend to also receive the least. In the following sections, we address some of the reasons for this pattern of accumulating disadvantage in grandparent-custodial families and grandparent-headed households in the United States.

Macro-Theoretical Perspectives

We suggest two macro-level theoretical perspectives in social gerontology that may have utility for understanding the relatively new challenge of grandparent caregiving as it is situated within the larger context of the family and public policy in the United States. Taken together, these perspectives provide a theoretical framework with which to analyze the inadequacies of current policies with regard to grandparents raising grandchildren.

The first theoretical approach is that of “structural lag,” a central concept of the age and society paradigm (Riley & Riley, 1994). Deriving from the age and society paradigm in social gerontology, structural lag describes the interdependence of age cohorts and social structures, and particularly the asynchrony between structural and individual change over time. Its major concept is that social structures cannot keep pace with population dynamics and changes in individual lives. That is, there is mismatch between people’s capacities and needs and the surrounding societal structures that grant opportunities to express those capacities and meet those needs. Inadequate institutional response to the childcare needs of divorced, single parent, and dual earner couples is a prime example of structural lag, as is its sequelae, the grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren without the legal protections, benefits, and publicly recognized authority as parent. Policies are embedded in stable institutional and political arrangements that change slowly, and naturally fall behind the population changes that abruptly come into being based on relatively rapid economic and social shifts.

The second theoretical paradigm is the political economy of aging perspective (Estes, 2001; Phillipson, 2005). This perspective seeks to explain how the interaction of economic and political forces determines the unequal allocation of resources, and the consequent loss of power, autonomy and influence possessed by older individuals. Variations in the treatment and status of those disadvantaged and marginalized by race, class, gender, and age—all relevant descriptors of the population of grandparents raising grandchildren—can be understood by examining public policies, economic trends, and social structural factors that constrain opportunities and choices over the life-span (Estes, 2001; Phillipson, 2005). As grandparent caregivers are overwhelmingly grandmothers, more than likely poor grandmothers, and proportionately over-represented by African-American grandmothers, it impossible to ignore the roles of race, class, and gender in the perpetuation of disadvantage within families, and its reproduction across generations.

Feminist theories of aging combine with political economy to treat differential access to key material, health, and caring resources which substantially alters the experience of aging for women and men (Arber & Ginn, 1995). For example, from a feminist perspective, family caregiving can be understood as an experience of obligation, structured by the gender-based division of domestic labor and the devaluing of unpaid work by public institutions (Stroller, 1993). Cultural expectations that grandmothers contribute to families as a matter of course with little need for institutional support, reflects a devaluation of poor women’s domestic labor. Women remain the backbone of informal caring networks, but remain disadvantaged in their accumulation of work-related returns, as well as receipt of some public benefits (Heinz, 2003; Casper & Bianchi, 2002). Kin-work, for instance, does not add to labor force participation credits necessary for Social Security eligibility.

The American Model of Social Welfare

Although grandchild care has become more visible in the past ten years, the issue as a public policy concern remains largely under the radar as reflected by lack of institutional recognition and support. To understand the failure of policy efforts on behalf of grandparent caregivers, it is useful to situate the problem within the context of American values of individualism and self-reliance, and the preferred balance between public and private responsibilities. Ironically, grandparent caregivers receive fewer institutionally based supports than non-kin caregivers (Landry-Meyer, 1999), a consequence of U.S. cultural and political norms that privilege voluntary family contributions and sharply divide private family functions from the public support sector. More generally, this divide highlights the peculiar approach of the U.S. toward collective solutions to private troubles, and the view that government should minimize its intrusion into the private sphere of the family.

In the United States, a culture of competitive individualism has shaped Americans’ attitudes toward the poor who are held responsible for their own destinies and as not having earned their right to long-term benefits (Newman, 1997; Kingson and Schulz, 1997; Cook & Barrett, 1992; Page and Shapiro, 1992). The relatively late and fragmented public response to the needs of the poor is rooted in the uniquely American approach to social welfare that includes an emphasis on private over public responsibility. Consequently, there has been a great reluctance to intervene in the private nature of family life. Indeed, most policies in the United States are designed to serve the vulnerable at the point at which family and individual resources have been exhausted. These values were highlighted with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 (Public Law 104–193). This reform ended entitlement to welfare benefits and imposed strict requirements for receipt of benefits, including work requirements, time limits, and restrictions on the living arrangements of teen mothers.

To put the U.S. family policy into sharp relief, one can look to the Scandinavian model of social welfare. Universal access to publicly financed low cost day care, free health care for children, and liberal parental leave benefits were instituted to reduce gender biases in the labor market, and have the unintended benefit of largely obviating the very need for grandparent caregiving. Most single mothers or grandmothers raising children can manage their lives more effectively and stay employed in the labor force because of the support provided by the state. In addition, liberal unemployment benefits and parental leave policies, and the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse as a medical (and less of a legal) problem, has reduced the need for grandparent caregiving. With this discussion as a framework, we examine policies (and lack thereof) that have directly or indirectly proven to disadvantage grandparent-headed families.

Policy Barriers, Gaps, and Unintended Consequences

In this section we review several of the specific manifestations of the private/public divide in U.S. policies toward families as they apply to the needs of grandparent caregivers. Currently, the policy environment is characterized by multiple examples of barriers to access, gaps in policy, and unintended consequences. In short, this represents the dominant paradigm in the United States designed to protect the most vulnerable families from unexpected adverse risk; that is, minimal benefits, provided within a fragmented system, to those highly motivated to apply for them.

As mentioned above, grandparent caregivers have comparatively low receipt of public assistance despite high levels of poverty (Brandon, 2005). This is particularly true among caregivers raising grandchildren outside the child welfare system. Despite similarities in both type and level of need, caregivers whose children are not involved with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) are less likely to access formal services including respite care, public assistance, and legal advice (Goodman, Potts, & Pasztor, 2007). This suggests substantial barriers in access to public support among grandparent caregivers who are informally raising their grandchildren.

Strict eligibility requirements for public assistance may be prohibitive for many grandparent caregivers in the United States. Grandparents who are otherwise eligible to collect welfare based on their own income may be discouraged by the strict work requirements imposed by PWORA, either due to their prior exit from the labor force or because of their advancing age, poor health or functional status (Copen, 2006). In addition, grandparents who received benefits while raising their own children may be ineligible to receive funding to raise their grandchildren if they have previously exceeded the time limits imposed by welfare reform (Smith & Beltran, 2003). Grandparents may be eligible to receive child-only payments that are exempt from these requirements; however, these benefits are much lower than family benefits (Smith & Beltran, 2003). As a consequence, the neediest families (e.g. chronically poor households) may actually be the least likely to receive benefits through this system.

Grandparents raising grandchildren have also reported much difficulty in obtaining health insurance for their grandchildren, especially those who do not have legal custody of the grandchild (Casper & Bryson, 1998; Jendrek, 1994b). Health insurance for children within the United States is obtained primarily through the employer of their primary caregiver, with the exception of children from low-income families who are often insured through a range of need-based public health insurance programs. Difficulties in obtaining adequate insurance have been widely documented within this system; however, the difficulties experienced by grandparents raising grandchildren have received little attention beyond a small circle of advocates, researchers, and academics. Grandparents raising grandchildren who are retired (or otherwise not employed) are unlikely to have access to a reasonably priced group plan and may have to turn to an expensive private plan if the grandchild cannot be insured through a parent. Even grandparent caregivers who are employed may have difficulty obtaining benefits for a grandchild if their employer does not consider the grandchild a dependent. This situation is quite common among grandparents who are informally raising a grandchild; in fact, out of more than 50 companies surveyed by Generations United, none allowed grandparents to include grandchildren on a health insurance plan unless a formal legal relationship had been established (Generations United, 2002).

Grandparents raising grandchildren are also at risk of living in inadequate housing conditions. Over 14% of grandparent caregivers live in overcrowded housing conditions, compared with just over 4% their peers; grandparents who rent have been identified as an especially vulnerable population as nearly 30% live in overcrowded conditions (Fuller-Thomson & Minkler, 2003). This level of overcrowding is not surprising considering that the entrance of the grandchild into the household can be unexpected and sudden; housing meant for one or two older adults suddenly has to fulfill the needs of a family. In recent years, many states have begun to introduce public housing specifically targeted at grandparent other relative caregivers. An example of this is Grandfamilies House in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a 26-unit housing project aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren (Gottlieb & Silverstein, 2003). While programs such as this have been helpful in addressing the housing needs of grandparent caregivers, they are limited in scope and are only practical for those caregivers who have permanent custody of their grandchildren. As we will discuss in more detail below, many care arrangements are not this black and white constituting a major barrier to this type of housing. In fact, problems have been reported with these programs, including how to handle tenants who live in the housing project, but are no longer raising a grandchild (Gottlieb & Silverstein, 2003).

Current policies in the United States are not only restrictive in serving grandparent caregivers, they have also indirectly encouraged grandparent caregiving activities Current policies regarding placement preferences of child welfare agencies, imprisonment for non-violent drug offenses, and welfare eligibility criteria either explicitly, or implicitly, rely on grandparents to take on a larger role in the lives of their grandchildren.

Grandparents have been identified as a preferable placement for children in the child welfare system, leading to a shift in the number of children placed in foster care as compared to the number placed in kinship care (Smith & Beltran, 2003). Clearly, this is in the best interests of most families, as well as for the foster care system. Unfortunately, although grandparent caregivers are raising children who would previously have been in the foster care system, they generally receive much lower benefits than their non-kin counterparts (Landry-Meyer, 1999). As a consequence, a large economic burden has shifted directly from the government to the family.

In addition, the incarceration rate has been steadily increasing in the United States over the past decade, particularly among women. The number of females in state or federal prison grew by nearly 20% between 2000 and 2006, while the number of females in local prisons grew by approximately 40% (Sabol, Minton, & Harrison, 2007). Much of this increase has been attributed to strict policies within the U.S. regarding non-violent drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentencing (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2004; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). The majority of children with incarcerated mothers are cared for by grandparents; in fact, over half of children are in the care of their grandparents as compared to only 28% in the care of another parent and less than 10% in foster care (Mumola, 2000). In many cases, these grandparents may have prevented placement in the foster care system upon the imprisonment of the mother.

Welfare reform has also had several unintended consequences for grandparents raising grandchildren. As part of PRWORA, teen mothers are required to live an adult-supervised household in order to receive benefits (Eshbaugh, 2008; Smith & Beltran, 2003). This reform was put in place primarily as a deterrent to teen pregnancy; however, this requirement essentially forced grandparents to take on partial or full parental responsibility for their grandchildren. While many grandparents would have chosen this path regardless of the policies in place, this still represents a strong value statement; that is, if mothers are unable to fully provide for their children, it is the duty of grandparents to step in and fill those gaps before the government will provide supplemental support.

Welfare reform also imposed new work requirements and time limits on those receiving welfare benefits. Of interest in this discussion is the influence of the five year time-limit on benefits and welfare-to-work policies on the provision of grandparent care and the formation of multigenerational households. Unfortunately, little research has attempted to tie welfare reform to the provision of grandparent care and the formation of multi-generational households; therefore, we can only speculate as to the possible effects. Given single mothers’ heavy reliance on public assistance (Brandon, 2005) and the heavy reliance of low-income working mothers on grandparental assistance (Vandell et al., 2003), it stands to reason that the work requirements of PWORA must have contributed to an increase in grandparent provided care, particularly that of full-time daycare. Similarly, it is unclear to what extent multigenerational households may have been formed to address 1) work-family conflicts experienced by single mothers as a result of welfare work requirements and 2) loss of welfare benefits for those who either did not meet work requirements or became ineligible for benefits after five years in the system (the current time limit for receipt of cash benefits). The formation of multigenerational households has long been a strategy used by families of low socioeconomic status to combat economic difficulties (Angel & Tienda, 1982); in fact, financial difficulties have been cited as a common reason for coresidence within three-generation families (Goodman & Silverstein, 2002).

The Continuum of Grandparent Care

Why have effective grandparent caregiver policies been so difficult to develop? Whereas public policies are designed to categorically serve eligible beneficiaries, the category of grandparent caregivers often has ambiguous boundaries and is often transitional in nature. In part, difficulties in developing sensible policies to serve custodial grandparents must come to terms with the definition of the situation of these grandparents who are plagued by volatile, uncertain, and highly dynamic family conditions.

Caregiving grandparents generally live in one of two household configurations: (1) skipped-generation households in which grandparents are raising grandchildren in the absence of the middle-generation, and (2) three-generation or co-parenting households in which a grandparent is raising a grandchild while co-residing with the middle-generation. Assumptions are made about the type and level of care provided by the grandparent based primarily on residential circumstances of the grandchild’s parent: Grandparents in skipped-generation households generally have the largest burden of care, while those in three-generation households are likely to be sharing parental responsibility with the parent. However, we argue that this categorization does not effectively address the complex system of parental and grandparental involvement in the provision of care.

The public often views grandparents raising grandchildren as distinct from “traditional” companionate grandparents. The role of “grandparent caregiver” conjures up images of the heroic grandmother who permanently steps into the parental role in the absence of the middle generation. To be sure, this is an accurate portrait of many grandparent caregivers. However, on closer examination, custodial grandparents reveal themselves to be part of a continuum of care that ebbs and flows with the needs and problems in the middle generation. Skipped generation households may become three-generation households and back again, and custodial grandparents may evolve into co-parents if adult children return or become more involved in child rearing, only to revert back to being in the custodial role.

There is evidence that in three-generation households, many grandparents take on a large share of parental responsibility, even claiming primary responsibility for grandchildren despite parental presence in the household (Lee, Ensminger, & LaVeist, 2005; Mutchler & Baker, 2004). In some cases, parents may in fact be transient members of the household, while grandparents are the stable parental force within the household. In other cases, co-resident parents may be unable or unwilling to effectively contribute to parental responsibilities; examples of this may include developmental disability, teen pregnancy, drug/alcohol abuse, or incapacitation due to illness. A salient example is the case of grandparents raising grandchildren as a result of the AIDS epidemic. There is evidence that grandparents take on substantial responsibility for the children of HIV infected parents, including assuming custody, even while the parent is still alive (Cowgill et al., 2007). Clearly, at least in the advanced stages of the disease, these grandparents are not sharing parental responsibility with co-resident parents; rather, they are simultaneously raising their grandchild and caregiving for their dying child.

Conversely, many skipped-generation households have a high level of contact with the parental generation. Nearly 2/3 of grandparents raising grandchildren in these households report at least daily contact with the parent (Baker, 2006). Might this lead to shared parental responsibility, even in the residential absence of a parent? Data from the U.S. Decennial Census reveals that there are a number of grandparents within skipped-generation households who do not claim primary responsibility for their co-resident grandchild(ren), despite a lack of other plausible caregivers within the household (Mutchler & Baker, 2004). Might the middle-generation in some of these households be parenting from a distance?

Prior research suggests that many grandparent care households may be formed in response to stagnant economic conditions - particularly in rural areas - in which the parents are not able to provide enough financial support for their dependent children. In some cases, the middle-generation may be forced to migrate to another state or region with higher employment and better educational opportunities (Kropf & Robison, 2004). In such instances, adult children will often send remittances to their parents to help out with their expenses and those of children in their care.

Finally, grandparents may also provide a substantial amount of care for grandchildren from outside the household. This is particularly common among African-American grandmothers who have been shown to report relatively high levels of parental responsibility for grandchildren regardless of co-residence (Lee, Ensminger, & LaVeist, 2005). Providing high levels of care for grandchildren from outside the household has been associated with increases in depressive symptoms (Minkler & Fuller-Thomson, 2001) and coronary heart disease (Lee, Colditz, Berkman, & Kawachi, 2003). Given these findings, it is clear that grandparents who provide high levels of care from outside the home may experience similar hardship as compared to custodial grandparent caregivers.

Complicating this issue is the fact that living arrangements within these households are quite often fluid and informally arranged. Grandparents raising grandchildren are likely to move in and out of the grandparent caregiver role throughout their life depending on the needs of adult children and grandchildren (Lee, Ensminger, & LaVeist, 2005). Due in part to this fluidity of household arrangements, grandparents raising grandchildren often do not have a formal legal relationship with their grandchild, creating challenges when navigating the complex bureaucracies that involve the schooling, health care, and income maintenance benefits for the child (Landry-Meyer, 1999).

Discussion

In this article we discussed several of the structural and ideological barriers to effectively serving grandparents who are raising their grandchildren within the United States. We are unabashed in acknowledging that these often heroic grandparents, mostly grandmothers, perform a public function that deserve state support. From a conservative perspective, public support would strengthen families and potentially increase the healthy development of two generations with long-term cost benefits.

Given the current economic and political environment within the United States, the current style of advocacy is likely the most expedient route to provide needed services for grandparent caregivers. But is this method a bit like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? Given that family structures are changing and multigenerational households are becoming more common, can we really continue with policies that do not recognize this diversity?

Definitions of “the family” that idealize past, and most likely forgone, kinship structures impede the development of policies that serve families as they are currently configured. Conceptions of the modal family as nuclear with two opposite-sex parents and dependent children is now outdated, and policies based on this model are bound to under-serve families with alternative structures. Families under stress and duress adapt by expanding beyond the nuclear family structure to involve a variety of kin and non-kin relationships. This shifting nature of family types makes policy formation difficult, particularly in the United States given the strict eligibility requirements for many public programs. Revising stagnant social policies toward families will require a redefinition of the family to one that is less bound by residence and biology, to one based more on function. Is this possible in the short-term?

While a culture change in the U.S. is certainly possible, it will be slow in coming. A more pragmatic strategy to produce more immediate results would be to offer policies that are isomorphic with current cultural values. Following are a set of policy recommendations for maximizing support available to grandparent caregivers that respond to these changing realities, but that are also sensitive to the American social and political context.

Since many grandparents raising grandchildren are currently working, they may experience high levels of work/family conflict. Consequently, one of the most widely reported needs of grandparent caregivers is that of respite care, a service that has relatively low cost. Government can provide incentives to employers who offer flexible work schedules and conditions to accommodate workers who have family care responsibilities. A family-leave policy that does not explicitly or implicitly penalize workers for taking time off to care for family members should be promoted, recognizing that relief for caregivers provides real benefits for the workplace by increasing worker productivity, for society by advancing equity for the working poor, and for the family by promoting the healthy development of all generations in the family.

Policies that require little programmatic interventions include providing economic relief through tax credits, or by paying caregivers directly for their services at a rate commensurate with foster care. Paying caregivers, despite claims of its inefficiency in paying family members for what they would do for free anyway, may be successful at reducing burdens faced by grandparent caregivers, reinforce their good will, and contribution to child welfare.

Countervailing trends are formidable. In most Western nations there has been a retrenchment of social welfare programs, as governments seek to reduce their commitments to the dependent population and shift more responsibility to families (Parrott, Mills and Bengtson, 2000, O’Rand 2003). The role of government in providing for its most vulnerable citizens has tended to weaken (Estes, 2003; Phillipson, 2003). Policymakers are under increasing pressure to apply market principles in the design of social policies while placing restrictions on public welfare programs. Macro-economic restructuring and trends toward the individualization of risk (O’Rand, 2003) have permeated all social institutions, creating tensions between public and private sources of support for the vulnerable of society (Giddens, 1991).

However, there are promising signs at the grass-roots level. The issue of grandparents raising grandchildren has initiated a public dialogue among older persons, service providers interest groups, and policy researchers, leading to a range of community support programs and nascent advocacy groups. On balance, we see more hope for optimism than for pessimism with regard to advancing the social benefits that might become available to families in which grandparents are raising their grandchildren. This issue has attracted the attention of aging service professionals, leading to the involvement of the federal Administration on Aging and several interest groups, including AARP and Generations United. Cooperation between researcher, practitioner, and advocacy communities resulted in a variety of community, state, and federal programs, most notably provisions for grandparent caregivers through the 2000 amendments to the Older Americans Act under the National Family Caregiver Support program. This program now provides funding for respite care, support groups, and other services relevant to grandparents raising grandchildren (Smith & Beltran, 2003), a direct result of the efforts of grandparent caregiver advocates. Clearly, significant advances have been made in meeting the needs of grandparent caregivers thanks to the work of these advocates; however, much still needs to be done in developing family policies that are capable of benefiting all generations in all types of families.

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