Social Security in Multigenerational Families

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It’s not unusual for Black and Latino children to live with their grandparents, who are either the primary caregivers or members of a multigenerational family.

And just as the grandparent is integral to the family unit, so are the Social Security benefits the grandparent receives and contributes to the household. The poverty rates in families with children would be much higher without the income from Social Security, according to new research on Wisconsin families.

Nearly two-thirds of the study’s families in which a grandparent is a child’s primary caregiver rely on Social Security retirement benefits, disability benefits, or the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI), which makes small cash payments to low-income retirees and the disabled.

Just under half of the three-generation households that include a grandparent get some income from Social Security.

The University of Wisconsin researchers confined their study to low-income families who are participating in state-run safety net programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, child support, and a caretaker supplement. They used state government data to draw a detailed picture of the grandparent families, whose income in 2019 ranged from about $33,000 when the grandparents are caregivers to $40,000 in multigenerational families. The families are more likely to be Black, Latino, and, in the case of three-generation families, Asian. The vast majority of the heads of household are women and frequently urban dwellers.

But the reason for the grandparents’ involvement and the importance of their financial support are different in each situation. Grandparents tend to be caregivers when the child’s parents are incarcerated, have substance abuse or mental health issues, or have died. These grandparents are a crucial, or the sole, source of financial support.

In three-generation households, they support the child’s parent or parents financially. But the working adults’ earnings are by far the most important source of family income.

The grandparents’ financial support was significant enough to reduce the poverty rate among the study’s families. Without Social Security, the poverty rate among grandparent caregivers would jump from 48 percent to 66 percent. Poverty in the three-generation households would rise from 50 percent to 58 percent.

The combination of Social Security and state assistance is crucial for many of these families. But Social Security is important for another reason besides the direct financial support it provides. The federal program is “perhaps a more stable source of income,” the researchers said.

To read this study, authored by Lawrence Berger, J. Michael Collins, Molly Costanzo, Yonah Drazen, and Hilary Shager, see “Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in SSA and Means-tested Benefit Receipt and their Anti-poverty Effects for Children in Multigenerational Families.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.


Let’s say thank you to a guy named FDR.


The authors miss a more important question. Given the choice, there seems to be a preference for grandparents living in a separate household – this was one of the most important changes that resulted from the introduction of Social Security. Multi-generational households are often the result of economic necessity. What would the poverty rates of the grandparents and children/grandchildren look like if they lived in separate households.

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