Combating Poverty with the Extended Family

Graphic credit: Weldon Cooper Center. Click to enlarge.

by James A. Bacon

One of the central debates about poverty in the United States has been the degree to which public policy should promote marriage. Children raised in two-parent families are less likely to grow up in poverty, goes the conservative argument. It’s not the marriage but the higher levels of education and income associated with marriage that make the difference, couner the liberals. (See my spin on a new reported issued by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, “Who Needs Dad When You’ve Got Uncle Sam?“)

In an update to its original report, Weldon Cooper has published an amazing statistic: In 2011, one in ten Virginia children lived in a residential extended family — most often in the household of a grandparent but often with an uncle or aunt. These arrangements, which typically in response to a major life event such as a job loss,  illness, divorce of break-up, are usually temporary. Half end within a year. Megan Juelfs-Swanson, author of the blog post and co-author of the study, acknowledges the value of extended families:

By banding together, the members of extended families pool economic resources, which may help to keep them above poverty. Furthermore, combined human resources can reduce other costs. For example, when grandma and grandpa watch minor grandchildren, it not only frees other members of the household to work but also eliminates the need for paid childcare. In these ways, extended families can act as a buffer against poverty.

But there are limits to what extended families can accomplish, the blog post says: “While forming extended families undoubtedly improved the economic conditions of some children, two out of five children in extended residential families live in households that struggle to make ends meet.”

Along those lines, the Times-Dispatch published a poignant story Sunday recounting the travails of two homeless Richmond teens who bounced between mother, father, aunts, cousins and grandparents, all with varying ability and willingness to care for them. Both teens rotated between relatives to spread the burden. The Richmond school system has identified enough children living this way — 34 at present — that it has developed a classification for them — “independent, unaccompanied youth.”

Although I disagreed with the thrust of the original study, I applaud Juelfs-Swanson for publishing this new data. It steers the debate away from simplistic discussions of the role of the nuclear family in combating poverty to a more complex, more nuanced discussion of the role of the extended family. Nuclear families — single mothers and their children — are embedded within a larger network of family relations. The debate about poverty needs to take that reality into consideration.

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3 responses to “Combating Poverty with the Extended Family”

  1. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    I’ve done a lot of research for a national organization involved in the legal and other issues that come into play when grandparents raising grandchildren. I’ve interviewed almost two hundred grandparents, aunts and uncles and other extended formal and informal guardians myself in ghettos, affluent suburbs and reservations. Yes, job loss, illness and divorce are factors coincident in many cases. You could add in the recession and poor parenting skills, the latter of which occurs in both single-parent and intact family households all across the socioeconomic spectrum. But overall, the leading root causes of extended families taking in grandchildren are substance abuse, abandonment and incarceration.

  2. larryg Avatar

    what matters is the education level of the care-takers of the kids no matter whether it is Mom/Dad or Aunt/Uncle or Grandma/GrandPa

    if they do not have a culture of education – and the child is getting bounced around on a regular basis – to different schools – that child will not progress without specific additional help.

    Kids who have a caretaker that barely graduated from HS are not going to benefit and Kids who get moved between different schools and localities – inevitably end up with “gaps” because we do not have standardized curricula… like we might have with Common Core but people have gone ape crap in opposition to ( common core is the de facto standard in virtually every other OECD country – the 25 who outrank us.. ).

    We keep continuing to want to assign blame for the various problems instead of forcing ourselves to focus on the realities and what we must do if we are going to overcome the problems.

    instead – we continue on these things that are little more than flimsy excuses why we don’t have consistent special help for at-risk kids and standardized curricula so that when kids move – they just pick up where they left off (or they get assessed to find out what they still don’t know ).

    We have a responsibility to educate kids – no matter their parental and geographic, demographic circumstances and we keep making excuses that if the don’t live in a stable two-parent family – it somehow is not something we can deal with..

    About 50% of Mom/Dads part ways regardless of economic circumstances and most teachers will tell you that mom/dad separation problems are often at the root of poorly performing kids – even ones not in poverty.

    yet – we keep drilling down on poverty … as the reason why some kids don’t learn.. and it’s a puzzle to me – as if it matters what the reason is when we’re talking about an innocent child who can learn if we give him/her the needed resources … instead we look for excuses for why he/she will fail…

    I just don’t get it.. especially when these kids grow up – need entitlements and then go have kids of their own – repeating the cycle.

    we were among the first countries in the world to create a public education system – and it was very successful -in a time when we had an agrarian economy and then later when we had jobs that latest for entire careers.

    we don’t live in that world any more. People change jobs, get divorced, move in with parents.. give their kids to their grandparents to take care of…etc..etc..

    the well-educated mom/dad together for decades and working at the same job for decades are a minority now.

    yet – our responses to this are to 1. blame family breakdown and 2. blame teachers and teacher unions…

    when we talk about Pre-K, head start, common-core, Title 1 teachers, etc.. we get, not support – but push back.. these things cost money … and don’t work, yadda yadda yadda… it has to be someone’s fault not our own lack of commitment to find and fix and move forward.

  3. larryg Avatar

    re: ” But overall, the leading root causes of extended families taking in grandchildren are substance abuse, abandonment and incarceration.”

    now that you mention it – yes a frequent thing I have heard from the teachers I know.

    Mom went to prison – Grandma – the one who raised the “mom” – who went to prison – is now raising Mom’s kid.

    and why is that extended family idea, necessarily a good thing?

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