A new film in theaters is called “Black or White.” It is a drama about a custody battle over a young girl waged by her grandparents (her mother’s father and her father’s mother). The story is about race, but it also illustrates a quiet and disturbing trend occurring in U.S. society. It is the phenomenon of increasing numbers of grandparents, mainly grandmothers, raising their grandchildren because their children cannot do so.
Is this a recent phenomenon? Yes and no. Over the past four decades, increasing numbers of grandparents have been in the position of raising grandchildren. For example, a study conducted in 1990 found that the number of children living with their grandparents increased nearly 44 percent in the 1980s. Yet, it does seem to be accelerating and affecting a growing number of families. According to the 2010 U.S. Census data, the number of children being raised by their grandparents had more than doubled since the last census in 2000. By 2010, an estimated 2.7 million grandparents or one out of 24 grandparents were the primary caregivers for their grandchildren under 18.
Obviously, a child raised by a grandparent typically will be better off than one in foster care. Grandparents offer familiarity and, more importantly, familial bonds. Additionally, care for grandparents likely will place the child in more contact with the child's mom and/or dad, increasing the sense of security that child will feel. Moreover, an estimated $4 billion is saved in government spending because grandparents take responsibility for children who otherwise would end up in foster care.
Some may say that this extended family living arrangement is nothing new. Before the nuclear family became common in the United States, extended family relations were common. However, this trend is not the same as in previous generations where grandparents, parents, and children (perhaps along with a few aunts, uncles, or cousins) lived under the same roof. Indeed that situation still exists today with families who have lost jobs and homes during the recent recession or in cases where single parents (typically following a divorce) return to live with their parents to help raise children.
Yet, there is a difference between parents raising their own children while living with grandparents as opposed to grandparents raising their grandchildren in the case of an absentee or non-functional parent or set of parents. That is a growing trend, and it is largely due to one cause — substance abuse.
In the film, the situation occurs because of the death of the girl’s mother in childbirth. However, the problems of her father in the film are more typical of absentee parents today: He is a drug dealer and addict. In those cases, parents cannot raise their children because they are incapacitated due to their abuse of alcohol or drugs, are in jail for drug-related offenses, or are in treatment programs.
Substance abuse is the most common factor in cases where children are taken out of the home. And that substance abuse problem appears to be growing. According to data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Illicit drug use by adults and teens went up from 8.3 percent of the population in 2002 to 9.2 percent by 2012. And according to a 2010 survey they conducted, about 2 percent of mothers with children under 18 abused drugs. That compared with 1.1 percent in 2002. Another way to see this problem is to examine the percentage of newborns enduring drug withdrawal. The state of Florida reported that the rate of newborns in drug withdrawal rose from one in 1,000 to four in 1,000 over a four-year period. In Washington state, the increase was nearly as stark — 1.4 in 1,000 to 4.8.
The silver lining in this trend is that grandparents today are there to fill these roles in times of need. Yet there appears to be a not insignificant number of parents (a lost generation) who are caught in a cycle of illicit drug use, inability to raise their children, and, in many cases, eventual termination of parental rights to grandparents. The question is: What happens when their children have children — where will the grandmothers be to raise them?
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.