Extended Families: Weapon against Child Poverty?

Children living in married parent families are less likely to live in or near poverty than children in unmarried (either single– or cohabiting) parent families. Some policy advocacy groups use this to argue that marriage is the “greatest weapon against child poverty” because of the additional economic and human capital marriage adds to a household, even though there is no clear agreement about the precise ways in which parent marital status and childhood poverty interact. In fact, critics of the marriage-as-remedy position argue that economic risk may play a part in both child poverty and in the reluctance of parents to marry. As a result, they argue that economic ­– not relational – measures are the keys to reducing poverty.

However, this concentrated focus on parent relationship status overlooks another form of family structure pertinent to the well-being of poor children: the residential extended family.  These structures may allow families to pool economic and human resources to care for children and ameliorate the effects of tough economic circumstances. In 2011, one in ten Virginia children lived in a residential extended family.

Figure 1 — Children Living in Residential Extended Families by Type of Family

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Changing Dynamics of Multigenerational Households, 1960-2010

Multigenerational black familyRecently, 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. Continue reading