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Grandparents Face Financial Woes in Raising Grandkids

Grandparents Face Financial Woes in Raising Grandkids

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In an era when the traditional two-parent nuclear family has gradually given way to all kinds of alternative arrangements, children are more likely to find themselves being raised by an extended family member such as a grandparent.

For journalists covering health, exploring the challenges faced by such families can be a solid entry point to someworthy, under-told stories. One angle to consider: How are grandparents raising grandkids faring in your community? Nationwide, about four percent of grandchildren are in the care of their grandparents, a figure that jumps upwards of seven percent in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi.

The financial pressures some of these familiesarefaceingcan be daunting. A recent report from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research that findsin a recent report that many grandparents left with raiseing their grandkids are financially strapped and in need of more safety net assistance.

The report, which focuses on California, says there are more than 300,000 grandparents in the state who are the main caregivers for their grandchildren, and 65,000 of those are over the age of 65. Among those grandparents over 65, the report says nearly half don’t have the income needed to cover the basic costs of caring for their grandkids.

Why are so many care-giving grandparents facing such dire financial outlooks? Many are on limited, fixed incomes.According to UCLA,a big part of the problemstems fromthe eligibility requirements for public benefits, which typically use the federal poverty level (FPL) as a measure of need. The federal poverty level benchmarks, however, are far below what it actually costs to live in an expensive state such as California, the report contends.

For example, in 2011 the FPL for an older grandparent with one grandchildwas $14,710, or $18,530 for an elder couple with a grandchild. But the UCLA study estimates that the average elderly couple would need roughly twice as much income to care for themselves and a grandchild, leaving them in a vulnerable financialno-man’sland.between..

While the cost of living varies considerably throughout the state, even the least expensive regionrequiresfaor morethan the poverty level benchmarks. An older couple in Kern County, California’s most affordable region??reasonable, would need nearly $33,000 a year with one grandkid, according to the study’s Elder Index, a cost of living measure which factors in local differences. In Santa Cruz County, that number peaks at nearly $50,000.

“Both single elders and couples need about twice the median Social Security income for older adults in California to support themselves and their grandchildren,” says the report, produced in collaboration with a nonprofit called the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. In 2011, the median Social Security figures for a single elder and an older couple were $12,523 and $20,483, respectively.

When states like California use FLP measurements,it precludes some low-income grandparentsfrom qualifying for benefits such as housing assistance, food stamps, or Medi-Cal.,Oor if they do qualify, it’s at reduced levels.The study’s authors believe a more accurate cost-of-living estimate, such as the Elder Index, is abetter way tomeasureassistance qualification forthese care-giving older grandparents.

To put the plight of low-income child-rearing grandparentsin human terms, the Los Angeles Times’ coverage tells the story of South Los Angeles resident Bessie Clayborne, an 83-year-old grandmother singlehandedly raising her 6-year-old grandson Malcolm. Clayborne has cared for Malcolm since he was a newborn, when his mother wasimprisoned and his father proved unwilling to raise his son. But she does so on an extremely tight budget:

A retiree who volunteers in a community coalition, she supports herself and her grandson Malcolm through the $860 a month she receives in food stamps and from her late husband's Social Security benefit. Out of that, $395 pays for a federally subsidized two-bedroom apartment, $90 covers gas and electricity, and about $100 goes into her car for gasoline and maintenance. That leaves less than $300 for food, school supplies, and her blood-pressure medication, which is not covered by her Medi-Cal and Medicare supplemental policy. On top of that, she has $25,000 in credit card debt. But Clayborne is so upbeat about her life, a resolve she says comes from her faith in God, that “no one would ever know” if she was experiencing hard times.

But perhaps policymakers should knowthatpeople like Clayborne aresufferinghaving hard times. As the Times article points out, seniors who take on parenting duties spare the state millions of dollars that would otherwise go toward foster care.

Ironically, while California’s foster-care providers qualify for federal funds to cover the costs of childcare, grandparents who take in a child who would otherwise be placed in such a home aren’t eligible for the same funds.

“State foster care funds are only for non-relative foster parents and needs to be extended to relative caregivers,” says D. Imelda Padilla-Frausto, lead author of the UCLA report.

Only if the child has first gone through foster care in an eligible home can a grandparent then qualify for CalWORKS, a state welfare program that pays far less than foster-care aid.

What other policy recommendations does the report propose? A few brief outlines:

  • To address the state’s high cost of housing, the report suggests giving grandparents raising kids priority when it comes to affordable housing and subsidies.
  • To ensure food security, the report advises increasing food stamp (SNAP) eligibility to 200-percent of the federal poverty level for such families, or alternatively, making the kids raised by grandparents eligible for SNAP benefits. Similarly, the state could provide “automatic Medi-Cal and SNAP benefits for children involved with juvenile or probate courts who are placed with a family member,” the report says.
  • On the cash-assistance front, the report identifies a few possibilities: One option would be to extend state foster care benefits to grandparents and other family caregivers.Another would be to update the eligibility requirements for federal foster care funding to include custodial grandparents.

But all of these measures won’t help older grandparents and their young charges very much if grandparents don’t know what benefits are available, or how to navigate the state and federal bureaucratic crevasses in their way. As Bessie Clayborne says in the Times’ story:

“I’m learning that there are resources available,” she said with hints of surprise in her voice. “I just have to learn where they are and how to find them.”

That’s why the report emphasizes the importance of outreach efforts and “navigator” programs that can help lead grandparents through the safety-net landscape. Public programs ranging from CalWORKS and Kin-GAP to the new health insurance exchanges share a common challenge: It’s hard for anyone to take advantage of programs they either don’t know they qualify for or can’t figure out.

For more information on the prevalence of grandparents raising grandkids in California counties, visit Kidsdata.org.

Image by chedderfish via Flickr

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