The images are clear in my mind, in spite of the decades that have passed: my grandmother, waking up well before the sun rose in Haiti, lifting up her basket of goods and placing it over her head, and heading off to the marketplace. In the evenings, I’d see her return, exhausted after a long day but content knowing she was successful in providing her family with food.
This weekend we will celebrate National Grandparents Day. My grandmother, who turns 93 this year, raised me in Haiti for the first four years of my life. Like a skilled master builder laying the foundation to a house, during those formative years she instilled, brick by brick, a strong sense of faith, hard work, perseverance, humility, hope and determination — values that still guide me today.
Around the time of my birth, my mother came to the hard realization that neither she nor my father was in a position to fully care for me. I am grateful she made the hard, life-changing decision to place me under my grandmother’s care. I am also certain my grandmother didn’t envision that after raising her own children, she would one day be the primary caregiver of a 1-month-old. Nevertheless, she took on the responsibility with grace, dignity, and a fierce determination to ensure that I would have a bright future. In doing so, she sacrificed so I did not go without. With little income and no formal education herself, she made sure I received a high-quality education in a private school. I am forever grateful for the decision she made to raise me during those formative years, and for the sacrifices she made in order for me to become the person I am today. Every milestone I’ve reached in my life, from grade-school graduations to my receiving my doctoral degree, has been something of a thank you to my grandmother.
My experience is not unique. According to the American Community Survey, the number of grandparents serving as primary guardian for grandchildren has risen to 2.7 million as of 2014, up from 2.4 million in 2005. Meanwhile, the number of grandparents living in the same household as their grandchildren (i.e., including those who may not be serving as primary guardian but likely are doing some level of caregiving, given their presence in the household) jumped from 5.7 million in 2005 to 7.3 million in 2014.
While the profile of grandparents raising grandchildren cuts across all racial and ethnic groups, genders, and socioeconomic levels, this family structure is more likely to occur in low-income, single-woman and African American households, according to demographic data. The reasons grandparents might find themselves responsible for raising a grandchild vary. Circumstances including (but not limited to) health issues, substance abuse, divorce and death can trigger this life change.
While grandparents’ immense contribution in parenting is invaluable in so many ways, it is concrete and measurable in some respects. According to Generations United, grandparents and other family members who take on the responsibility of caring for and raising children save the United States $4 billion dollars annually. Their dedication and contributions can help delay and in many cases entirely avoid a child having to go into foster care.
Yet while most of these grandparents find their new role rewarding, it can also have implications on their health and financial security. Complicating matters, the new parental role often comes at a time in life when they must rely on fixed incomes as a result of being in their retirement years. Consider a few data points on this topic:
- Nearly 21 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren are living below the poverty line.
- About 39 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren are over 60, and 25 percent have a disability.
- Forty-two percent of grandparents responsible for grandchildren provided care for five years or more.
Generations United released a report that ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia for their level of policy support for grandparents raising grandchildren. States were measured based on percentage of foster care children placed with relatives, education and health care consent laws, de facto custody laws, and participation and support for several federal programs such as the National Family Caregiver Support Program and Lifespan Respite Care Program. A key finding from this report is that all states, even the top performers, had room to improve in ensuring that these caregivers and children had the necessary support services to succeed and thrive.
Alex Haley once said, “Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.” As we celebrate National Grandparents Day — a day on which we honor the many contributions grandparents make to our lives — we must continue to seek policy solutions that will provide meaningful support to the millions of grandparents raising grandchildren. After all, without parenting from grandparents, where would so many people be? Try people like President Barack Obama, former president Bill Clinton, Simone Biles, the late poet Maya Angelou, Jamie Foxx, Jack Nicholson and Carol Burnett. I’m proud to be in their company in at least one respect.
Jean Accius is vice president of livable communities and long-term services and supports for the AARP Public Policy Institute. He works on Medicaid and long-term care issues.