In a recent study, I discovered that the number of kids living with their parents and grandparents — in what demographers call a three-generation household — has nearly doubled over the past two decades.
Why has this been happening? And is it a good thing or a bad thing?
The answers are complex. The reasons for the trend are as broad as social forces — like a decline in marriage rates — to unique family circumstances, like the loss of a parent’s job.
The trend is worth studying because by better understanding who children live with, we can design better policies aimed at helping kids. Programs targeting kids usually overlook these other people living under the same roof. But odds are that if grandma’s there, she matters, too.
The flexible family unit
A three-generation household is just one type of a living arrangement that falls under the umbrella of what demographers call a “shared household” or a “doubled-up household.”
In a shared household, a child lives with at least one adult who isn’t a sibling, parent or parent’s partner. It could include a cousin, aunt, uncle, grandparent or family friend.
In 2010, about 1 in 5 children were living in a shared household, a 3 percentage-point increase from 2007. In a 2014 study, I tracked the same kids over time and found that by age 10, nearly half of children in large U.S. cities had lived in a shared household at some point in their lives.
Then, to probe further, my colleague and I used two large census data sets to study trends by the type of shared living arrangements.
We found that, overall, the percentage of children in shared households had increased since 1996.
But the rise was nearly entirely driven by an increase in just one type of household: three-generation households — sometimes referred to as multigenerational households — in which children live with at least one grandparent and one or both parents.
We also found that the share of children living in three-generation households has risen from 5.7% in 1996 to 9.8% in 2016.
In other words, roughly 1 in 10, or 7.1 million, kids lives in a multigenerational household. At birth, about 15% of U.S. kids now live with a parent and grandparent — a rate that’s double that of countries like the U.K. and Australia.
Meanwhile, there was no real change in the percent of children living with aunts and uncles, other relatives or non-relatives. Nor did we find any evidence of an increase in “grandfamilies,” also known as “skipped-generation households.”
These are homes in which a grandparent is raising a grandchild without the child’s parents living with them. Counter to some media reports, the share of children living in grandfamilies has held steady at roughly 2% since 1996.
A trend rooted in more than the recession
What propelled the rise in multigenerational households?
We found that shared living arrangements did increase during the recession, but it wasn’t just because of the recession. Research on unemployment during the Great Recession has found that the economic downturn didn’t have much of an effect on whether parents expanded their household ranks.
In fact, the share of multigenerational households was rising before the Great Recession — it actually started in the 1980s.
Furthermore, these shared living arrangements continued to increase even as the economy recovered.
All of this suggests there other, more deeply rooted, reasons for the increase.
My study identified three possible drivers.
Next, a growing share of U.S. children are non-white. Because minority families are much more likely to share households, this population shift seems to explain some of the increase.
And finally, there’s the fact that more people are receiving Social Security. Because Social Security gives grandparents a steady source of income, it could be that these grandparents are stepping in to help their grandchildren if their own children’s incomes are too low.
But this only explains some of the increase.
We also know that low-income parents, younger parents and parents with less education are more likely to live in a three-generation household.
At the same time, some of the fastest growth in these households has been among more traditionally advantaged groups — children with married mothers, higher income mothers and older mothers.
More research is needed to really understand why these households have increased and the extent to which public policies, like reduced welfare availability or declines in the real minimum wage, are driving this trend.
Not an ideal arrangement
While the exact reasons for the trend are still unclear, the fact remains that more kids are living in three-generation households.
What should we make of it?
The findings are mixed because living arrangements are a complex topic. Motivation is difficult to distill. Sometimes people live together by choice — say, to be closer to family. Other times it’s by necessity — prompted by a crisis like a divorce, health problem or job loss.
From a policy perspective, who is in the household will likely impact the effectiveness of programs designed to help parents and kids. For example, programs that seek to improve the parenting skills of low-income moms generally focus only on moms. They’ll teach mothers to use positive parenting skills, like avoiding spanking their kids. But what if grandma still uses corporal punishment?
In other words, it’s a situation that most families would probably avoid if they could. So the fact that more people are living together suggests other larger societal and policy shifts are driving this trend.
Natasha Pilkauskas is an assistant professor of public policy at the Ford School. Pilkauskas’ research considers how social policy might improve the developmental and life trajectories of low-income children.