Grandparents Day and Public Policy: Two Generations, And Beyond!

By Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research

Sunday, September 10 is Grandparents Day, a holiday that seems to get lost in the shuffle of back-to-school and cleaning up from Labor Day picnics.

A national holiday falling on the first Sunday after Labor Day, the  origins of Grandparents Day lay in 1950s West Virginia, where a local resident and mother, Marian McQuade, lobbied for the creation of the holiday after witnessing local nursing home residents seemingly forgotten by their families. The goal was to “to honor grandparents, to give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children’s children, and to help children become aware of the strength, information, and guidance older people can offer.”

Two-Gen Comes of Age

Flash forward to 2017, where research on neuroscience and adult-child interaction reveals what we have known intuitively: adults play a crucial role for the development of children.

Social policy is increasingly shifting to a “two-generation” model, which acknowledges that child well-being depends heavily on parent well-being and vice versa. For example, we know that increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit are linked to improved child academic outcomes, and that the availability of quality early care and education is good not only for the students enrolled, but for parents and their employers as well employee absence is reduced.

Three-Gen and More

As important as the parent-child relationship is, science is also confirming that extended family members – especially grandparents – play a huge role in the lives of many children.  In some families, grandparents have actually become “parents” when illness or mental health challenges reduce a parent’s caregiving role.  We describe these families as “three gen,” and they have both common needs and special needs.

A Service Approach that Works

Research has revealed a set of operating principles for two-gen family supports. The same principles, listed below, are important for three-gen families.

  • Community supports and services are wrapped around the family as a whole. They encourage and are supportive of family decision-making, and are committed to family engagement over a period that may extend for one or two years, or longer.
  • Supports and services are delivered simultaneously to the child and the parent or other primary caregiver (as well as individually) and are integrated across service domains and sectors…
  • Supports and services quickly focus on individual and family strengths and assets, including within the extended family, and seek to build on family and community protective factors …

Grandparents as Early Care Providers 

Family Tree image

Photo Credit: Larissa Holland via Flickr Creative Commons

Nearly one quarter of children under age 5 are in the regular care of a grandparent. This is particularly true for younger children – twice as many infants (including my own!) are cared for by grandparents than by child care centers. This occurs for many reasons.  By choice, of course, but also because there are just not enough child care spaces for the nation’s youngest children who need them. Infant and toddler center-base care is also very expensive where it is available, and many child care centers may not fit the needs of parents whose schedules don’t fit the 9-to-5 mold.

Grandparents as the Head of Households

For 7.8 million families in the U.S., a grandparent is officially the head of the household.  Multi-generational families where a grandparent lives with the family (but is not necessarily head of the household) are common across the country. Nationally, 2.5 million children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives with no birth parent present. The number of grandparents who serve as children’s primary caregivers is expected to grow dramatically, as children are moved from parents’ homes due to the expanding opioid epidemic in America.

While grandparents offer stability at a time of turbulence for children that can help mitigate the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), these adults also have special needs.  Not uncommon are financial and legal problems, as many grandparents lived near or in poverty before they took on primary responsibility for their grandchildren. In fact, 21 percent grandparents raising grandkids live below the poverty level, and 58% of these grandparents are still in the workforce themselves.

Studies cited by  Generations United have shown that when grandparents become the primary caregivers of their grandchildren, taxpayers save $4 billion each year in child welfare costs.

How Can We Celebrate (and Support) Grandparents?

We can work to embrace two-generation strategies in our programs for families – and then push further to ask how we can make these three- and four-generation strategies, as Senior ICS Fellow Janice Gruendel did in a recent presentation on opportunities for extended family involvement in evidence-based home-visiting models.

We can learn more about opportunities to fully include “grandfamilies” in our safety net programs, as highlighted by Generations United.

We can continue working to improve access to early care and education programs, so families have more quality choices for young children, which can complement nurturing care from grandparents.

We can continue to support research and resources to ensure quality of life for seniors and foster healthy intergenerational relationships.

And it wouldn’t hurt to send a card.

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