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Multigenerational Families

Courtesy of Generations United

Families like the "American Family" are becoming increasingly common throughout the United States. Today, there are almost four million American multigenerational households (three or more generations living together) according to the new census data. The Gonzalez family is only one example of the millions who are turning to multigenerational households. This household structure allows families to come together to face the many trials of life, such as raising a child, caring for elders, single parenthood, and high cost of living and housing. Although the multigenerational family creates a safety network among its generations to face their obstacles as a whole, those obstacles still abound.

According to the 2000 Census, nearly four million (3.9 million) American households consist of three or more generations living together.

Multigenerational families face obstacles like the inability to place the children and elderly on health insurance policies, to obtain affordable housing, as well as enrolling the children in school. The obstacles can be even greater if the biological parents of the children aren't present and the family caregiver lacks a legal relationship, such as legal custody or guardianship, for the children for whom they are caring.

Many multigenerational families are in the same situation as the Gonzalez family. They are raising children on a permanent or temporary basis. To establish a legal relationship between family caregivers other than the biological parents and the children they raise, legal proceedings must be brought. These proceedings are usually lengthy and emotionally difficult for everyone involved. The court must reach conclusions about the fitness of the parents and the best interests of the child. These conclusions can strain family relationships, rather than keep the family together as the Gonzalez family was able to do.

Imagine if Nina was not a lawyer or chose to accept her job in Washington. Pablito may have been removed from the Gonzalez family. Because of Nina's training, she may have been more familiar with the numerous laws and regulations regarding gaining the custody of Pablito, and was able to work with Child Protective Services to keep him with the family. However, many families are not as equipped to deal with a complex child welfare system, and might have lost Pablito to foster care in this situation. Furthermore, while Jess Gonzalez, Pablito's grandfather, does not currently exhibit any overwhelming health concerns, with age his health could become an issue, and demand the care of one of his children. This could place even greater demands on Nina, his daughter, who is also the primary caregiver for his grandson.

Numbers of Multigenerational Families On The Rise
The phenomenon of multigenerational families is on the rise. According to the 2000 Census, nearly four million (3.9 million) American households consist of three or more generations living together. Seventy-eight thousand households nationwide consist of four generations. Since 1990, the number of multigenerational families grew by approximately 60 percent.

While certain members of multigenerational families may face numerous strains on their time and resources, the family member of multiple generations together in one household also serves as a unique support to its members.

According to the United States Department of Commerce's Census Bureau, multigenerational households are defined as households that consist of "three or more generations of parents and their families." While families in these households come in various forms, most multigenerational families fall into one of two types of family structures. One structure includes families with the householder, his or her children, and grandchildren. This type of household represents two thirds, or 2.6 million, of the 3.9 million multigenerational families in the U.S. Often in this family structure, the grandparent or older relative would have the primary caregiving responsibility for the under 18 year-old children. In such cases, these older relatives may feel particular strain on their finances, health and emotional state because they are older and were not expecting to care for children at this time in their lives.

Another common multigenerational structure includes a householder plus his/her own children and his/her own parents. In 2000, there were nearly 1.3 million of these types of families in the U.S. In these households, the householder typically was not expecting to be caring for their older relative and is strained by the responsibility of providing for the food, shelter and medical needs of their older relative in addition to the daily demands of raising children.

The family structure shown in "American Family" represents some of the issues that could arise in either of the two typical structures. While Mr. Gonzalez owns the home where some of his children and grandchild reside, Nina begins taking on the role of the primary caregiver for Pablito. As Mr. Gonzalez ages, Nina's responsibility to help attend to any health issues may grow.

Multigenerational families cut across race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. While the majority of multigenerational families in mainland U.S. are Latino like the Gonzalez family, Hawaii has the highest percentage of such families (8.2%). Therefore, in all of the U.S., multigenerational families are most commonly Asian, followed by Latino, then African American families.

The number of multigenerational families is expected to become more commonplace and continue to increase. By the next census, experts predict that:

  • More children will grow up with support of older relatives.

  • More people in their 60s will be called on to care for 80 and 90 year-olds because of life expectancy and numbers of baby boomers.

  • More children will get to know their great grandparents.

  • The number of four-generational households will become more common.

Factors that Account for Increase in Numbers of Multigenerational Families
In the Gonzalez family, Pablito came into the care of a relative due to his mother's substance abuse and father's history of incarceration. These are just two of the many factors that explain the increase in numbers of multigenerational families. Common factors include:

  • Families that live where there are housing shortages

  • High housing costs

  • High cost of living

  • Areas with a large number of unwed mothers living with parents

  • Recent immigrants that move in with family

  • Growing numbers of older adults living longer -- increasing the need for family caregiving and the possibility of multigenerational

  • Increasing numbers of grandparents and other relatives raising children due to: death of a parent, child abuse and/or neglect, abandonment by parent, HIV/AIDS, incarceration, mental health problems, family violence, poverty

Needs of Multigenerational Families
Policies and practices nationally and in states and local communities should recognize and support the responsible actions of those relatives, like Nina, who step in and care for their children or older relatives. There are several areas of concern that need to be addressed:

Legal -- Relative caregivers have difficulty obtaining affordable legal assistance. They usually need such services in order to obtain custody or guardianship, to access public benefits, and to access school enrollment and health insurance for the children.

Health and Mental Health - In the case of relative caregivers who are raising children informally without a parent consistently present, they often have difficulty accessing medical care for these children because they lack the authority to consent to the child's treatment. Furthermore, it is often difficult for these caregivers to include the children on their private health insurance policies.

Stress on Caregivers -- There are also health and mental health concerns for the caregivers of children and older adults. The stress older adult caregivers feel caring for young children, accompanied by their own health difficulties can be overwhelming and can result in a variety of stress-related illnesses. Also, difficult family situations that often characterize the children's transition to the relatives' care can create emotional problems for the children as well as the caregivers. For parents caring for their older relatives, the typical stress that comes with this often overwhelming responsibility is exacerbated by the standard responsibilities and stress of caring for one's own children.

Education --Many school policies are geared towards "nuclear" families and thus may pose special obstacles for relative-headed families. In addition to the inability to enroll the child without proof of legal guardianship or custody, accessing school records can be a problem.

Housing-- Relatives often begin caring for children or older relatives with little or no warning or preparation time. As a result, they may have difficulty accommodating the children or older relatives in their current residence. If they live in elderly housing, often those buildings do not allow children, so they force eviction. Families taking on the responsibility for older relatives, may not have a home with handicap accessible bathrooms or other features necessary for the needs of some older adults. These families struggle to find different housing that is affordable and will accommodate the children and/or older relatives.

While certain members of multigenerational families may face numerous strains on their time and resources, the family member of multiple generations together in one household also serves as a unique support to its members. Through out our country's history, efforts of relative caregivers, have proven to be the last line of defense in keeping related children from entering the foster care system. Dedicated family members that keep their older relatives out of long-term care facilities also save taxpayers, millions of dollars in medical costs. Their efforts epitomize family responsibility. While these caregivers are willing to step in, they are seldom equipped to provide all the care and services that the children and older relatives require. We must support these relative caregivers like members of the Gonzalez family who are working to keep families together.

For additional information on multigenerational families or grandparents and other relatives who are raising children, please visit the Generations United web site at

About Generations United
Generations United (GU) is the national membership organization focused solely on promoting intergenerational strategies, programs, and public policies. GU represents more than 100 national, state, and local organizations, representing more than 70 million Americans and is the only national organization advocating for the mutual well-being of children, youth, and older adults. GU serves as a resource for educating policymakers and the public about the economic, social, and personal imperatives of intergenerational cooperation. GU provides a forum for those working with children, youth, and the elderly to explore areas of common ground while celebrating the richness of each generation.

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