Recently, Pew Research Center reported on an increased prevalence of multigenerational families, in which children live in the same household as their grandparents. Nationally, roughly 1 million more children live in a multigenerational household in 2011 than did in 2000. In 2011, one in ten children live in a household configuration that includes at least one grandparent.
The Pew report points to the role of economic hardship, resulting from the Great Recession, in the increase of these households. For example, parents who have lost homes due to foreclosure may decide to move with their children into their own parents’ homes. Likewise, grandparents whose retirement savings have been diminished may need to rely on their children for assistance in daily life.
Forming a multigenerational household is one way that families band together to provide for family members. It is a way of sharing economic resources to meet basic needs. In addition, it allows for the sharing of household work. This can take the form of grandpa and grandma watching grandchildren to free up other members to go outside the home and work.
Multigenerational households occur when a minor grandchild and a grandparent live together. This can occur in one of two ways:
- The minor grandchild lives with at least one parent and at least one grandparent, OR
- The minor grandchild lives with their grandparent(s) without their parents, sometimes called “skip-generation households”.
Pew’s report focuses on national trends since 2000. In so doing, it obscures some important regional and historic trends in the patterns of grandchildren living with their grandparents:
- While multigenerational households have increased in recent years, this is not consistent over the last fifty years.
- There is strong regional variation in the prevalence of multigenerational households. Children in some states, such as in the South, are considerably more likely to live with their grandparents than children in the Midwest.
- Finally, the composition of multigenerational households has shifted over the last fifty years. Children in multigenerational families are now more likely to live in grandparent-headed households than they were in 1960.
Multigenerational Households by Region
Nationally, in the 1960, as in 2011, about one in ten children lived in a multigenerational household. Rates of grandparent-grandchild co-residence were clearly higher, however, in some areas of the country than others.
In 1960, the states with the highest rate of children living in a multigenerational household were:
- Mississippi (20 percent)
- South Carolina (19 percent)
- Alabama, Hawaii (17 percent in each state)
- Georgia (16 percent)
In that same year, the states with the lowest rate of children in a multigenerational household were:
- Alaska, Oregon, Utah (4 percent in each state)
- Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Washington, Wyoming (5 percent in each state).
As indicated by the lowest and highest states, there are specific regional patterns to the distribution of multigenerational households in 1960: In the South, one in five children lived in a multigenerational household compared to one in twenty for children who resided in the West or Midwest. The one exception is Hawaii, where children are as likely to live with their grandparents as children living in the South.
While the percentage of children living in multigenerational households showed a small drop through the 1970s and 1980s, it began to edge upwards in the 1990s. In addition, through the end of the 20th century, the regional variation in multigenerational households seen in the 1960s holds. By the 2000 and 2010 Census, however, children in Southwestern states, such as Arizona, California, and New Mexico, were as likely to live with grandparents as children living in the South.
States with highest rates of children living in a multigenerational household in 2010 were:
- Hawaii (25 percent)
- District of Columbia (20 percent)
- Mississippi (19 percent)
- New Mexico (17 percent)
- California, Louisiana (16 percent)
States with lowest rates of children living in a multigenerational household in 2010 were:
- Iowa, North Dakota (5 percent)
- Minnesota (6 percent)
- Maine, Nebraska, Wisconsin (7 percent)
However, the rate of children living in these extended families is only part of the story: how those families are constructed also has regional variation.
Types of Multigenerational Households
While all multigenerational households contain grandparents and grandchildren, the composition of those households can be very different. In the 1960s, the majority of multigenerational households in New England and many Northern states were middle generation- headed households. This is when, for example, grandma comes to live with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. In this configuration, the daughter and son-in-law are the established householders.
In contrast, grandparent-headed households are when the grandparent is the established householder and the daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren are under the umbrella of the grandparent. This also includes skip-generation households where the grandparents and grandchildren live together without the middle generation. Skip-generation households are often formed as a temporary living arrangement when parents are unable to care for their children, or following the death of the parent.
In the 1960s, in some New England states, it was twice as common for children to live in a multigenerational household where their own parents were the householder than it was for them to live in a grandparent-headed household. In the South, on the other hand, children lived in grandparent-headed households at twice the rate that they lived in middle-generation-headed households. However, by the 1980 Census, it was more common for children to live in grandparent-headed households than middle-generation-headed households in all 50 states. This trend continues to hold across the country: in 2010 it was at twice as common for children in multigenerational households to live in a grandparent-headed home than in a middle generation-headed home. In 17 states and the District of Columbia, four out of five children who live in multigenerational households lived with a grandparent head (shown in the dark green in 2010 map below).
The shift in the composition of multigenerational households hints at changing ways families provide care for their members. In the 1960s, it was more common for children to experience grandma coming to live with them and their parents (the South and Hawaii excepted). Now, regardless of region, it is more common for children to reside with grandma and grandpa. Some children live with grandma and grandpa from the time they are born. For others, the households form after economic or emotional distress, such as a job loss or divorce. For these children, and their parents, living with grandparents means the disruption of packing their bag and adjusting to life in a new location. Regardless of how they are formed, both types of families must deal with the realities and challenges of meeting the needs of the youngest and oldest generations simultaneously.
 The minor child is the grandchild of either the household head, spouse of the household head or lives in a household which also contains the parent or parent-in-law of the household head.