Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: Why Data and One’s Own Experience Can Differ

The U.S. Census data and research reports from Generations United show there is a growing trend of grandparents raising grandchildren across the country. Much of the growth is caused by grandparents stepping in to help when their grown children are struggling to parent their children – because of substance abuse, job challenges, divorce or separation, and other life challenges. Generations United reported recently that drug abuse, and the opioid epidemic, represent the most significant causes for the national increase in grandparents raising grandchildren.

Causes for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

Recently, a Con Alma Health Foundation study found that nationally, approximately 8% of grandparents report they are helping to raise grandchildren; with 10.9% of New Mexico’s grandparents raising grandchildren. This study, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in New Mexico: Understanding the Trend & Stemming the Tide, also found that much of the increase in the trend is related to substance abuse, job challenges, divorce or separation, and related difficulties. Since New Mexico has higher than national averages of substance abuse, poverty, low wage jobs, teen pregnancy and other challenges, it is not surprising to see that the state’s ratio is almost a third higher than the national rate. The New Mexico Community Data Collaborative’s data on grandparents raising grandchildren also shows these figures, and provides interactive maps for people to check what is happening in their own county.

What People See on the Front Line

However, what is surprising is that many people on the front line indicate that they’re seeing a much higher rate of grandparents raising grandchildren. People who work in the school system, or who are active with schools; and those involved with social services have been reporting:

  • Most of the children who go to school with my grandchildren are being picked up from school by their grandparents;
  • The rate of grandparents raising grandchildren in our school system is about 60%.

How, then, can there be this difference between the U.S. Census data, and what people are reporting at the community level?

There are a number of reasons why the data reported is different from what many experience at the community level. It’s important to understand the “why of the gap.” Neither set of experiences is either right or wrong – – they come at the situation with different perspectives.

Explaining the Difference Between U.S. Census Data and Community Experience

Here’s why there is such a difference between what many people see in their own communities, and what the U.S. Census, Generations United, Con Alma, and the New Mexico Community Data Collaborative report. All of these research projects and reports use U.S. Census data. So, what’s with the U.S. Census data?

  1.  U.S. Census data reports just grandparents raising grandchildren, and grandchildren being raised by grandparents. They do not report on aunts, uncles, older siblings, or others who help raise young children. This means the data is lower than the actual reality.
  2. U.S. Census data comes from queries to families about whether or not they are raising grandchildren; a number of people interviewed in research projects and support groups report that they know of many situations where people interviewed do not necessarily trust the government and the U.S. Census, and deliberately underreport their role in helping to raise grandchildren.
  3. People who see a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren in school settings are seeing not only those who are actively raising or helping raise grandchildren, as well as grandparents who are just helping out.
  4. Schools that are located in primarily poor neighborhoods, and those with high concentrations or racial and ethnic minority populations have a much higher percentage of grandparents raising grandchildren, so those numbers will be anywhere from double to four or five times the state’s average.
  5. Those who work in the field are focused on this issue, and therefore see a much higher proportion of grandparents raising grandchildren than we see in the population at large.
  6. This means that our experience at the community level depends a lot on our community, and its demographics. However, that said, people from both poor and wealthy communities are reporting that they’re seeing a fast-growing trend of grandparents raising grandchildren which deeply concerns them.

What Does This Mean?

I believe that the data we have from the U.S. Census underreports the numbers of grandparents raising grandchildren, and the actual experiences in communities. However, the U.S. Census data is the only baseline data we have for census tract, county, state and national data.

What may be needed is to have schools partner with key state and county lead organizations and funders to gather confidential and anonymous information from students and teachers. If we could gather information from schools, where most children being raised by grandparents are found, then we might have a better picture of the real trend, and how this is affecting families and communities.

Much of the research I’ve done and have studied indicates that this trend reflects much deeper family and community issues related to substance abuse, low wage jobs, single and separated parents, and other problems. These root causes must be addressed by equally deep systemic and policy changes that focus on building economic development through widely diverse living wage jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities; addressing the behavioral health crisis; as well as providing resources and supports for parents raising children and grandparents raising grandchildren.

Article by:  Anne Hays Egan, researcher and primary author, along with John W. Egan, of the Con Alma Health Foundation’s research and report: Grandparents Raising Granchildren in New Mexico: Understanding the Trend & Stemming the Tide. New Ventures Consulting.

October 15, 2017