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Growth of Grandfamilies Leads to Food Insecurity
posted 05.09.2012

SNAP and Other Public Benefits

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the largest federal  program addressing food insecurity, but it’s widely underused. While more than 7 million older Americans are eligible for SNAP, less than one-third receive benefits. Two-thirds of SNAP-eligible people in other age groups receive benefits.

Research indicates the following factors are the most common reasons people do not sign up for SNAP:

Misunderstanding. Many fear they might take away benefits from someone who may need them more than they do.

Stigma. Many feel too proud or embarrassed to receive benefits.

Lack of awareness. Many don’t know SNAP is available or that they might qualify for it.

Fear. Many fear that the SNAP application process is too burdensome and bureaucratic, and any benefits they might receive will not be worth the effort.

Outreach, education and awareness-raising efforts such as AARP’s Drive to End Hunger, Feeding America’s SNAP Outreach Program, USDA outreach efforts, volunteer programs (such as Americorps and state-local nutrition outreach programs) and coalitions are working to dispel myths about SNAP and increase participation.

Resources for Grandfamilies

By Amy Goyer

According to the U.S. Census, more than 2.5 million grandparents in America are householders responsible for grandchildren who live with them, and almost 20 percent are living in poverty. More than a third of these households have no parents present. A recent AARP survey found about one in ten grandparents have grandchildren living in the home, and 43 percent of those indicate they are the primary caregiver for at least one grandchild. Thirteen percent of Hispanic grandparents live with grandchildren,and nearly two in ten African American grandparents live with grandchildren.

There has been an increase in these “grandfamilies” over the past decade—the 2000 U.S. Census found 4.5 million children living in grandparent-headed households; by 2010 that number rose to almost 5 million children. These grandfamilies are here to stay—many grandparents are primary caregivers for significant periods of time. In the AARP survey, half of the grandparents who are primary caregivers said they have been in that role for five years or more.

The High Cost of Caring for Kids

Many grandparents lose or quit jobs to care for grandchildren, and they incur increased basic expenses such as housing, healthcare, clothing, school expenses, childcare and food. Raising children is costly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports the cost of raising a child went up 40 percent from 2001 to 2011. And while costs vary dependent upon geography, income and the number of children, they are significant and add up over time. Many grandparents end up spending down retirement savings, and for those on a limited income, raising grandchildren can push these elders into poverty.

Too many of these grandfamilies are going hungry, too, with the older adults suffering physical and mental health consequences including diabetes, depression—even malnutrition. According to Feeding America, more than one in six children lives in a household with food insecurity, which can lead to adverse health, growth and developmental outcomes.

The following are some recent findings related to food insecurity:

  • in 2001−2009, the number of people ages 50 and older struggling with hunger rose by almost 80 percent, with nearly 9 million older Americans at risk of hunger today;
  • in August 2011, new research from AARP Foundation found that from 2007 to 2009, the number of those ages 50 to 59 who were at risk of hunger increased 38 percent, to nearly 4.9 million; and
  • among the most at risk for hunger are older adults living with a grandchild (the average age of a grandparent raising grandchildren is 57, so many grandparent caregivers fall into this category — too young to qualify for Social Security or Medicare, and either unaware of available assistance, or with incomes is too high to qualify for it, but too low to make ends meet).

Targeting Efforts Crucial to Reach Grandfamilies

As a nation, how are we helping these at-risk grandfamilies fight poverty and hunger? There are myriad local, state and federal programs providing financial assistance and feeding people. But while many programs target outreach to older adults or to children, few focus on these combined populations.

That’s where the network of local grandparent support groups, resource centers, statewide coalition efforts and national organizations comes in. Such groups are run by USDA Extension services, universities, area agencies and local departments on aging, children’s and human services agencies, faith-based communities and a range of community organizations. They provide everything from education, and social and emotional support to legal assistance, and they often incorporate public benefits outreach to connect grandfamilies with financial assistance, medical care, home energy supports and nutrition assistance.

They collaborate with local foodbanks and nutrition agencies to educate grandfamilies about the best ways to stretch their food dollars and remain healthy. They understand the unique combined needs of grandfamilies, such as nutrition education related to medical conditions for older adults, as well as changing nutritional needs as children grow. (See sidebar on page 10 for links and program descriptions.)

As the economy recovers slowly, and causal factors for grandparents living with grandchildren (substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, divorce, death of a parent, child abuse and neglect, etc.) don’t show any signs of decreasing, growth of grandfamilies will surely continue. More efforts are needed that specifically target grandfamilies, as is greater interagency collaboration and referral. Many grandparents interface with the aging network, but don’t receive referrals to assistance for the grandchildren they are raising. Conversely, some grandparents are connected with benefits for their grandchildren, but don’t receive referrals to the aging supports network.

We must work together to connect these special families to available financial and nutrition assistance programs, many of which are highly underused because of stigma, fear and lack of knowledge. These grandparents are providing a great service to their families and their country, trying to offer a stable home and security to their grandchildren—let’s work together to enable them to do so

AARP family and multi-generational expert Amy Goyer is an author, speaker and consultant residing in Chandler, Arizona.

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the May/June, 2012, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

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