The latest news on American families is that more children are living in no-parent households. These are not the packs of ten-year-olds found on the streets of Rio de Janeiro or Bucharest. Children in no-parent U.S. households are cared for by grandparents, other relatives, unrelated foster parents or in group homes.
According to "Side Effect of Welfare Law: The No-Parent Family?" written by Nina Bernstein for the New York Times of July 29, 2002, researchers are wondering if a recent increase in no-parent families is related to the pressures of welfare reform on low-income parents. The Times article cited a study by the Rand Corporation and the University of California which found that during the 1990s, the share of black urban children living without either parent rose from 7.5 percent to 16.1 percent.
Sending children to live with relatives is not a new phenomenon, and is not confined to any particular social or economic group. Most children raised by their grandparents do not live in central cities, and more of them are white than black. There are many reasons why children live without their parents, including divorce, mental and physical health problems, unemployment, alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence, child abuse, and incarceration.
However, there is some evidence that welfare reform has played a growing role. An evaluation of Iowa's welfare-to-work program found that by 1999, welfare applicants randomly assigned to a new work program two years earlier were more than twice as likely to have a child in foster care as were applicants placed in a program operating under the old rules.
Welfare reform in Wisconsin showed similar results: five percent of parents who no longer received public assistance reported sending their children to live with someone else because they could no longer care for them. Researchers expect that the percentage is actually higher, because the most troubled families were under-represented in the study. Another unexpected outcome was an increase in the number of children on public assistance after Wisconsin finished setting up its new welfare system. Children in no-parent families can receive welfare themselves as child-only cases, regardless of their caregivers' income.
About 30,000 New York City children are in "public foster care," meaning that they have been formally placed in a household of relatives or strangers by child welfare workers. No count is kept of children in "private foster care"-those living with non-parents, usually relatives, without official oversight by the child welfare system-but according to Jerard Wallace of the Grandparent Caregiver Law Center, only one in eleven children living with relatives is in the public foster care system.
For caregivers, which of the two systems they are in can mean the difference between financial ruin and the ability to maintain a household in relative comfort. Public foster care entitles each child in a household to the same basic grant. Children with special needs receive larger grants. Children in private foster care are eligible for "child-only" welfare benefits instead. These are smaller payments that make no allowance for children with special needs, and rise only slightly with each additional child in the household. In either system, most children are eligible for Medicaid, and those in low-income households can receive food stamps.
However children in private foster care are much less likely to know about or receive public benefits. Wallace believes that the child welfare system fails to fully inform relative caregivers about available benefits, in part because of a philosophy he summarizes as, "Family should take care of family without us having to give them money."
As a result, many relatives care for children at great cost to themselves. Wallace has captured the effects of this burden in a videotape of nine grandparents speaking about their lives as relative caregivers.
"You cannot watch this tape and not cry," he says. For private foster care, Wallace notes, public assistance "is the de facto support system, and if we are interested in saving children, we have to make this system work."
The Census Bureau estimates that of the 80,000 New York City grandparents raising their grandchildren in 2000, more than one in four lived in poverty, and the majority had no high school diploma. Nearly two-thirds had been responsible for their grandchildren for at least three years.
These conditions in themselves put children at risk. Children in no-parent households with income lower than the poverty level, and headed by an adult who did not graduate from high school, are three times as likely as children in general to be unemployed high school dropouts by age 17. If they are girls, they are five times as likely as girls in general to be raising a child of their own by age 17.
Private foster care also puts children at a disadvantage because of their caregiver's lack of legal status. Without formal custody or guardianship, schools and hospitals can refuse to allow non-parent relatives to make arrangements for children to receive services. Eligibility workers for government benefits programs may not realize that kinship caregivers are entitled to benefits. However, many caregivers are reluctant to take formal steps to gain custody or become guardians, because it may disrupt their families further and delay the children's reunification with their parents.
There are some bright spots in the growing recognition of the needs of relative caregivers. New York State plans to stop cutting child-only welfare payments in half for households where the caregiver is receiving the Earned Income Tax Credit, a benefit available only to low-income families.
In New York City, relative caregivers can turn to the Department for the Aging's Grandparent Resource Center, which offers support groups, information forums, a hotline for referrals to appropriate services, a resource library, and a directory of resources. Center Director Rolanda Pyle also conducts conferences, collects children's toys for the holidays, and has a small emergency cash fund for grandparents in crisis situations.
Pyle helped draft a state bill-which was not enacted-that would have given relative caregivers legal rights regarding children, such as the authority to enroll a child in school, write notes to excuse absence from school, and consent to medical treatment. Similar laws exist in California, Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
The New York Times followed up its July 29th article with one on August 14, 2002, entitled "Child-Only Cases Take Up a Bigger Share of Welfare." This time, Bernstein noted that child-only cases now make up over one-third of all family assistance cases, inspiring some critics of welfare policy to accuse caregivers of collecting the $352 monthly payments in order to avoid having to work.
The new focus on child-only welfare cases has the potential to bring the needs of caregivers who are relatives into the debate on reauthorizing the federal public assistance laws, and into the training programs of New York City's front line public assistance and child welfare workers. Children living apart from their parents already face major challenges. It might be a wise investment in our future to identify and support children in no-parent families.
Help and information for grandparents raising grandchildren, and other caregivers
- The Grandparent Resource Center of the New York City Department for the Aging. Rolanda Pyle, Director. Services include an information hotline, mayoral conferences, technical assistance, and a support group facilitators network. Telephone (212) 442-1094.
- The Grandparent Caregiver Law Center of the Brookdale Center on Aging, Hunter College. Jerard Wallace, JD, Director. Telephone (646) 366-1015 or (518) 434-4571, or visit the website.
- AARP Grandparent Information Center, in Washington, DC 20049. Telephone (202) 434-2296 (English) or (202) 434-2281 (Spanish). Visit the website of AARP.
- Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children, a project of Generations United. Ana Beltran, Project Director. Telephone(202) 662-4283 or visit Generations United's website.
- National Resource Center for Respite and Crisis Care Services.
Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.