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WSU study: Pandemic led to surge in multigenerational homes

By Treva Lind, The Spokesman-Review
Published: September 5, 2023, 10:28am

Spokane — Grandparents served as a safety net for grandkids when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with unexpected numbers of elders moving in or opening homes to an additional 460,000 U.S. children, said a Washington State University researcher.

A study found such multigenerational households comprised a majority in a 2020 surge of nearly 510,000 children in all pandemic-era “doubled-up” residences. That meant kids and at least one parent lived with another adult — grandparent, aunt, cousin or roommate. The study didn’t count a parent’s partner or an adult sibling.

Mariana Amorim, a WSU sociology assistant professor and lead author, said mainly grandparents provided a safety net for families, particularly for six months beginning in spring 2020, when schools and other systems closed.

However, the spike in such living arrangements from 2019 to 2020 was temporary and returned to expected levels in 2021. The research compared such yearly co-residency patterns by using survey data collected by the U.S. Census.

“Most of these increases can be explained by children and parents living with at least one grandparent during COVID,” Amorim said.

“It could be that the grandparents moved in with the child and the parent, or that the child and parent moved into the grandparents’ household. That part we don’t separate in the study, but they decided to move in together — all of those people did — during COVID.”

About 15.3 percent of children lived in doubled-up households in 2015, followed by an average increase of about 0.1 percentage point each year. From 2019 to 2020, the share of children in these arrangements jumped from 15.7 percent to 16.3 percent, an increase six times greater than expected.

The 2020 demographics suggested the co-residency surge was driven by family needs for economic help and other supports for daily living, such as child care around parents’ work, Amorim said. In some cases, it could have been the grandparent in need of care or support.

However, in both scenarios, the family needs seemed to outweigh concerns over spreading COVID-19, Amorim said.

“These families co-resided together even in a period when there was a risk for living together, because if you are in a crowded household, there is a greater risk of transmission of COVID, in particular for grandparents who were vulnerable to disease and death from COVID,” she said.

“That was a particular risk there that grandparents took by co-residing with children and grandchildren during that period.”

The people moving into the doubled-up households tended to be families headed by single mothers or mothers who had never married or who were not working, the study indicates. It showed a trend of more families with children under the age of 6 who sought the moves.

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Researchers also found a larger than usual increase in Black and Hispanic children living in multigenerational households in 2020.

Amorim and co-author Natasha Pilkauskas of the University of Michigan have studied the trends for children in doubled-up U.S. households from 2015-2021. Over time, the researchers also have seen a pattern of co-residences occurring more often in late fall and winter, which might follow seasonal patterns of births and divorces.

The pandemic disrupted that seasonal pattern, with more people moving into doubled-up households in spring and summer of 2020 before that decreased later that year and then normalized in 2021.

“This really drives home the idea that doubling up, particularly living with grandparents, is a strategy that’s used to address economic or instrumental needs, but it’s not really the preference for Americans,” Amorim said.

“As soon as people are able to move out and live independently, they do.”

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