Vancouver retirees Larry and Lois Sickles thought the days of providing room and board for their children were a distant memory, left to the annals of the kids’ childhood photo albums. The Great Recession changed that.
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As residential construction slowed to a near halt, their 47-year-old son, Loren, a project manager, couldn’t find work. He and his wife, Laurie, no longer could afford their mortgage and had to sell their house. Without enough resources to pay rent, the couple, their two sons, Caleb, 17, and Brandon, 14; the family dog and two chickens moved in with Larry and Lois in the couple’s three-bedroom house in March 2010.
“We felt them moving in was the next logical thing to do,” Lois said. “We certainly don’t want them living in their car or on a street corner.”
The Sickles’ situation isn’t unusual. Fueled largely by job losses and home foreclosures, an increasing number of Clark County residents, and Americans in general, are moving in with family members as a way to weather the economic downturn — banding together under one roof to stave off poverty or homelessness.
While some multi-generational households are the result of cultural practices among immigrants, the recent growth in the number of extended families under one roof comes largely from economic distress among Americans who were born here, according to the Pew Research Center.
“From a sociological perspective, multi-generational households in an individualistic society like ours tends to happen in moments of crisis, specifically in the form of lack of resources,” said Marcelo Diversi, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. “In other words, in mainstream America, the vast majority of grown family members choose to live in different households whenever they can afford to. So a reversal of this individuation trend signals a direct effect of the economic crisis and ‘povertization’ of American families in recent years.”
More generations living together
Between 2000 and 2009, the number of Clark County households with three or more generations grew 55.4 percent, compared with 21.5 percent for one-generation households and 19.3 percent for two-generation households. The total number of county households grew by 21.5 percent.
Vancouver resident Ricky Seitz said his 25-year-old brother moved in with him about eight months ago because his brother couldn’t find full-time work. The brothers share a bedroom in a two-bedroom apartment they rent with a friend.
Three weeks ago, their financial situation took another turn for the worse. Seitz lost his full-time job as a restaurant manager. He has applied for unemployment, but until it arrives, he has no source of income.
The trend isn’t limited to urban areas. La Center schools Superintendent Mark Mansell said he started noticing more multi-generational households about three years ago in his 1,500-student school district.
“We saw more grandparents bringing kids into schools, and more grandparents waiting at bus stops,” Mansell said.
Fifty-two-year-old Otilia Patino moved to Vancouver from San Antonio, Texas, nearly a year ago to live with her 31-year-old son and help him take care of his two sons, ages 6 and 7, after he and his girlfriend broke up. Patino’s son pays the rent and bills, while Patino takes care of the children, cooks and cleans.
“He called me and said, ‘I need help,’ so he wouldn’t have to pay for day care because he was struggling,” Patino said. “It’s cool, because I’m really close to them, and I get to watch them grow up.”
Middle class in economic distress
Rob Gimlin, Washington WorkFirst program supervisor in the Community Service Division’s Vancouver office, said extended family households are nothing new among indigent families, but more members of the middle class are adopting the practice out of necessity.
“What we are seeing more of is people coming in in financial distress,” Gimlin said. “These are people who worked for years. They’ve used up all of their unemployment. They’ve used all of their retirement. They’ve maxed out their credit cards. They’re forced to move in with family.”
Loren Sickles said his new living arrangement has prompted him to question some of the stereotypes he adhered to before the recession.
“It’s a sign of total and utter failure if you move back in with your parents, especially in the middle of life,” Loren said. “Part of the thing that’s been a process for me is being willing to let people know this is our situation. It’s not like it’s a secret, but to sit around and say, ‘Yeah, I’m living with my parents in the back bedroom,’ there’s a level of me that wonders how is that going to be taken. One of the biggest jokes out there in TV and movies is to portray a total loser living with his parents. It makes you more sensitive to how you’ve harbored the same kind of feelings or biases.”
Even with rental assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, families often can’t afford to rent their own place, Gimlin said. The maximum amount of assistance allowable is $736 for a family of six.
David Johnson, chief of Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division of the Census Bureau, told The Wall Street Journal that the poverty rate of Americans living in extended family households would be about 44.2 percent in 2010 if their income was counted alone. That rate was 17 percent when the resources of all household members were factored in, Johnson told the paper.
Trend dates to 1980
The trend is happening among native-born Americans and not just new immigrants known to be more likely to live in extended-family households, according to Pew, which defines extended-family households as consisting of relatives other than the traditional nuclear family with two adults and their children.
Pew released a study on the phenomenon in March 2010 and dates the trend back to 1980. An increase in the average marriage age, an immigrant influx in the country and longer life spans all helped to contribute an increase in extended-family households. But the most recent surge in that type of household stems from the recession, according to Pew.
In La Center, schools officials often use construction impact fees to project the following year’s school enrollment. When residential construction took a nosedive a few years ago, district officials expected enrollment would follow suit. But the opposite happened: enrollment beefed up, Mansell said.
“We’ve had stories of grown children coming back to live with parents or people living on the property of friends or family as a way to buffer against economic conditions,” the superintendent said.
Although it’s difficult to break out exactly which households are multi-generational, there’s evidence of such living situations in the census data. The number of large households in the county has climbed faster than smaller households in the past decade. Between 2000 and 2010, households with six or more people grew by 40.3 percent, while the increases in households with two to five people inched up by just 20.5 percent.
Significantly more householders also responded that an adult child, grandchild, sibling, parent or other relatives lived with them in 2010 than in 2000. While the county’s total population grew by 23.4 percent, the number of people with children 18 and older in their household jumped by 164 percent. The growth was 69.1 percent in householders with “other relatives” living with them, followed by 66 percent with grandchildren, 61.2 percent with a parent and 39.3 percent with a sibling.
Although doubling up may be a symptom of economic woes, some families may benefit from living together because of “closer family connections, free and trusted child and elder care, and pooling scarcer resources into one household,” said Diversi of WSU Vancouver.
Seventeen-year-old Caleb Sickles jokingly complained that since he moved in with his grandparents, he can no longer escape the presence of adult relatives.
“You are with grandparents or parents 24/7,” Caleb said. “Our parents go somewhere, and our grandparents are still here.”
For the most part, members of the Sickles family said they help each other, and there are mutual benefits they reap from the living situation. For instance, the family pays for only one cable and Internet bill instead of two, Loren said. They can share food supplies that might otherwise go to waste. They chip in on housework that otherwise might fall to Larry and Lois alone. Plus, Lois and Larry have gained a flower garden, which Laurie planted in the yard.
But there also are drawbacks.
“I suspect most families forced into multi-generational households due to economic crises will experience high levels of conflict in the jammed living quarters, thus increasing family stress and the likelihood of … coping mechanisms that can be destructive to the collective over time,” Diversi said.
Seitz, the unemployed restaurant manager, said the close living quarters with his brother causes constant conflict.
“We don’t like living together,” Seitz said. “We argue about almost everything because he doesn’t have a vehicle, and I do. I am unemployed, so I have to help him get to work.” Seitz usually spends his own money on the gas it takes to drive his brother to work.
“It’s just stressful,” Seitz said.
In the Sickles’ home, everyone in the household said they crave more privacy. There’s often a wait for the bathroom.
Grandmother Lois Sickles also admits she sometimes gets annoyed when other family members take over the kitchen and put things back in the wrong place. She said she’s learning to hold her tongue and “let it go.”
Loren Sickles has used his extra time during unemployment to seek a master’s degree in communications at the University of Portland. He said he hopes his future career will allow him to return the favor to his parents and take care of them when they’re older.