Family life in the U.S. has undergone many changes over the last generation or two. One of the significant changes, researchers say, is the increasingly important role grandparents are taking in raising children.
A new University of Chicago study, based on a National Institute on Aging survey, shows that 60 percent of grandparents provided some care for their grandchildren during a 10-year period, and 70 percent of those who did provided care for two years or more.
There were indicators of this trend present in the 2010 Census data. It showed that eight percent of grandparents live with their grandchildren, and 2.7 million grandparents are responsible for most of their grandchildren's needs. That's compared with 2.4 million grandparents in 2006.
A Census survey also shows grandparents are the primary source of child care for 30 percent of mothers who work and have children under the age of five. The UChicago study drills deeper into the numbers, exploring the diversity in the kinds of care provided by grandparents.
"Our findings show that different groups of grandparents are likely to provide different types of care. Importantly grandparents with less income and less education, or who are from minority groups, are more likely to take on care for their grandchildren," said Linda Waite, Professor in Sociology at UChicago and an expert on aging.
The study found that while minority, low-income grandparents were more likely to head households with grandchildren, most grandparents provided some kind of care for their grandchildren.
The researchers based their study on one of the most comprehensive surveys done on grandparenting, the 1998-2008 Health and Retirement Study supported by the National Institute on Aging. The longitudinal study interviewed 13,614 grandparents, aged 50 and older, at two-year intervals over the period to determine their level of care-giving.
The study found that grandparents take a more active child-rearing role in black families. African American grandparents are more likely to start a skipped generation household while Hispanic grandparents are more likely to start a multi-generational household.
Grandparents are less likely to provide care if they have minor children of their own at home but the least likely grandparents in child-care roles are those who are older, unmarried and not working.
The findings have implications for public policy, Waite says, as child welfare agencies are increasingly depending on family members, particularly grandparents, to provide care to children when parents cannot. The Census figures show that 60 percent of the grandparents caring for their grandchildren also are in the labor force.
"Day care assistance may be particularly needed by middle-aged grandparents who are juggling multiple role obligations -- as parent, a grandparent and a paid employee," Waite wrote.