Millions Are Raising Their Grandkids in Poverty

Millions Are Raising Their Grandkids in Poverty

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Marquise Cormier and his grandmother, Kenny Jones, shown in photo, are among the millions of "grand families" in the United States struggling to make financial ends meet. Photo: Charlene Muhammad

Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here.

At age 16, Marquise Cormier knows well how fortunate he was to have his teenage father’s parents take him in as an infant and nurture him in a loving home. Things became hard on the family two years ago, when Marquise’s grandmother became ill and disabled and his grandfather died of a heart attack. (See part one of this series, “Child Prodigy and Grandmother Show Hidden Face of Poverty.”)

Marquise was unique as a precocious child—an author and small business owner at the age of 7—but he shares his experience of poverty with one in five California children ages 17 or younger that live in families with incomes below federal poverty levels (about $22,000 a year for a family of four with two children). indicates that African American children were 28.2 percent of the state’s children in poverty between 2006 and 2008. The website, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, provides more than 300 indicators on the health and wellbeing of children in California. also shows that one-fourth of the state’s poor children are Latino, another one-fourth are Native American, one-sixth Asian/Pacific Islanders and one-eighth white.

Nationally, 2.5 million grandparents have primary responsibility for their grandchildren, according to Generations United. Besides grandparents, more than a million aunts, uncles, adult siblings and family friends are also caring for children. In all, these kin care for 6.7 million children and youth.

This informal child welfare system cares for 10 to 12 times more children than the foster care system in the United States, which includes about 500,000 children, says Gerard Wallace, executive director of the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights.

Unexpected Parenting in Their Golden Years

Marquise’s ordeal mirrors that of many children reared by their grandparents or other kin, says Lenora Poe, founder of the California Coalition of Grandparents and Relative Caregivers.

Many such grandkin, especially in African American families, take in their grandchildren and raise them even during their expected retirement in their Golden Years. Often when troubles occur, such as illness or death, there’s no safety net they can rely on, Poe says.

Poe criticizes the official standard of poverty for being so low that people have to have “absolutely nothing” to be considered poor. Instead, she says, poverty should mean “there are insufficient resources for survival, and especially in these reconstituted families.”

Like Marquise’s grandparents, many seniors rearing their grandchildren do so on very limited incomes, mainly Social Security. They’re retired and have medical conditions or disabilities. These grandparents do it all with little public assistance because the birth parents—who might be incarcerated, incapacitated by drugs or, like Marquise’s teenage parents, simply too young to provide for a baby--are still considered the legal “custodial parents.” It’s a term for family members who are expected to care for their own without even the aid given to unrelated foster-care providers. The designation often makes them ineligible for assistance.

For example, even though Marquise’s grandmother, Kenny Jones, qualified last summer for MediCal (California’s low-income Medicaid program), she couldn’t also apply for Marquise. Fortunately, his mother was available to help with the application, and he recently went on MediCal. At almost every turn, however, Jones found barriers to getting basic help in providing a home for her grandson. Poe notes that some grandparents find they must return to work just to make ends meet.

Often, grandparents’ sense of pride and integrity won’t let them expose their difficulties to anyone. Poe calls it silent suffering. One way out of the isolation, she says, is for support groups like hers to approach community agencies that can help with such things as providing school supplies, transportation and positive social gatherings (such as holiday celebrations). Sufficient clothing is especially important for children, so they aren’t stigmatized as markedly different from their classmates.

“Children,” stresses, “need positive support without being criticized and judged.”

Struggling in Poverty

A disproportionate number of kin who are taking care of children are struggling in poverty, says Wallace. There are higher rates of poverty in kinship families than in parental families because so many are past age 60, living on modest fixed incomes and never anticipated their new parental responsibilities, including the need for additional income. Grandparents routinely skimp on their medical prescriptions in order to take care of the children.

Still, Wallace says, national studies prove that children do better when being raised by grandparents and kin than by strangers and foster care.

Some help is available through a federal Child-Only grant, offered under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. But only one-fourth of eligible kinship families are getting the grant because many aren’t aware of it, Wallace says. A grandmother in the Bronx, he recalls, cared for her murdered brother’s children for nine years before learning about this Child-Only assistance last year.

“The idea that there is even one child going to sleep hungry is a conversation we shouldn’t be having in a country with so many riches and blessings,” states Eileen Mayers Pasztor of California State University, Long Beach.

Pasztor, who developed national training programs to teach child welfare workers how to work with relatives, says poverty is just one of many other challenges--like custody battles, medical and mental health issues--that stand in the way of raising children to be productive members of their communities.

Ageism and Other Issues

Discrimination, ageism, and the system’s inability to incorporate families’ feedback on how make policies work effectively compound the problem, Pasztor says.

“I hardly ever hear somebody say to them, ‘We really appreciate that you’ve stepped up to take care of these children. Are you getting everything you need to raise these kids, to see that they get an education, to make sure that they’re off the streets, that they’re not in gangs, that they’re going to be a productive member of society? What can we do to help?’”

Advocates say social institutions often overlook people at the margins of poverty, such as Marquise and his grandmother, because they aren’t yet reduced to living on the streets.

Despite it all, Marquise says he’s determined not to let the poverty define who he is or will become. Aside from being an accomplished athlete, he’s a member of the Law Magnet Program at Dorsey High School and the Loyola College Law School Youth Program.

“Poverty is just a name they put on people that don’t have income. It’s been a journey for me,” Marquise adds. “I use it as motivation. I know that success is in my destiny and I’m waiting for it to manifest,” hinting, perhaps, that his next book could well be on the way.

Charlene Muhammad wrote this series through a New America Media Fellowship on the Hidden Face of Poverty.