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Anyone with children or who has helped raise children knows what an absolutely extraordinary task it is. Imagine thinking you are ready for retirement just to learn that it is time to start raising children again. This is the reality for a growing number of grandparents. According to a Pew study, the number of grandparents raising children (often referred to as “grandfamilies” or “kinship families”) increased from 2.5 million in 2005 to 2.9 million in 2015. Among the dynamics influencing this trend are poverty, job loss and other financial strains, and, what is now seen as the most common reason, parental substance abuse. Grandparent caregiving has continued to surge in the wake of the opioid epidemic, and the movement to provide support to these families is trying to keep up.
Thanks to newly added American Community Survey (ACS) data, PolicyMap users can now explore the geography of grandparent caregiving. The prominence of grandfamilies in Appalachia can be seen below; in many areas, greater than 10% of households have grandparents who are responsible for their grandchildren.
Why is this trend so pronounced in this region? The recent craze over J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy has certainly increased awareness of the poverty and hardships faced by some residents in this part of the country. The persistent poverty map below confirms that poverty in Appalachia is deep and entrenched.
While poverty has long been associated with grandparent caregiving, researchers from University of Michigan found in a recent study that there seems to be something more going on in Central Appalachia. After controlling for factors such as gender, race, age, education and poverty, the authors found that grandparents in this region are almost two and a half times as likely to be responsible for their grandchildren when compared to the rest of the country. In terms of why this problem is so exacerbated in this region, the authors suggest high rates of job loss in the timber and coal mining industries and high rates of substance abuse in the region (along with inadequate access to drug rehabilitation services). On PolicyMap, adding drug and alcohol treatment centers to the map we just looked at make it easy to identify areas with a high percentage of grandfamilies that are not in close proximity to an opioid treatment facility.
No matter which zip code they live in, grandfamilies face unique challenges. Many grandparents work in low paying jobs or are on a fixed income, and the financial, emotional and physical strains they face when raising their grandchildren can be severe. Furthermore, while grandparents and family members are generally the first and preferred option for children whose parents become unable to care for them, they are unlikely to get the resources that licensed foster parents would get. Many advocates are pushing for increased support for grandfamilies and trying to shift policy focus towards a kinship model, such as the Kinship Care Subsidy Program established in Louisiana. Along these lines, Generations United, an advocacy group for intergenerational policies, offers a series of recommendations aiming to reform the federal child welfare system and prevent children from entering foster care, make sure children in foster care get placed with families (and that, whenever possible, the family be biological), and ensure that kinship families get the full range of support (legal, financial, information, etc.) to help ensure their children flourish.