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Last week, our friends at Pew released a new report detailing the rise in the number children living with grandparents since the onset of the recession. According to the Pew report, 10 percent of children lived with a grandparent in 2011, and the vast majority of those (80 percent) also had a parent present in the household. While this trend is a result of long term economic forces that have left the middle class struggling to keep up, the recession exacerbated those underlying causes and led to a dramatic rise in the number of inter-generational households. As a previous Pew report found, “in the years of the Great Recession, the multi-generational household population shot up, increasing by 4.9 million, or 10.5 percent, from 2007 to 2009. During this time, the overall population grew only 1.8 percent. As a result, the share of the population living in multi-generational households increased to 16.7 percent in 2009, up from 15.4 percent in 2007.” That proportion continued to rise and by 2011 the number of children living in a household with a grandparent reached 7.7 million.

The economy of inter-generational households is not limited to grandparents taking in their children and grandchildren.  Family has become a new national safety net for college graduates facing declining job prospects and rising student loan payments, families facing unexpected unemployment, and older adults whose shifting fortunes forced them to move in with their grown children. The stereotype of basement-dwelling twenty-somethings does not nearly characterize the full extent of an economy that has reversed the long 20th-century trend of nuclear family households.

In our own tracking for Democracy Corps, we find that half of all voters (51 percent) say that they or their families have moved in with a family member or had a family member move in with them in the last year.

Democracy Corps began tracking multi-generational households last summer, when the issue emerged so poignantly in a series of focus groups we conducted on the economy.

We wrote:

They are consumed with the costs of things and how to adjust creatively to this new economy. That includes moving back in with an ex, moving in with a parent or the kids moving in with you. The creative economy of necessity has forced many people to adjust their living situations:

I live with my first husband, which is not the greatest thing in the world but anyways, I do have two children, 31 and 26. The oldest has three kids who lives with us…And I’m hoping to get this job so I can get out of the house.  (Non-college-educated woman, Columbus, OH)

Right now I live with my family. I moved to Columbus two years ago…And I’m unemployed right now.  (Non-college-educated woman, Columbus, OH)

Have two kids, one’s a high school junior, the other is 26 years old, both living at home.(College-educated man, Bala Cynwyd, PA)

My daughter is back with me at home, she’s 25 … Very expensive and in this day and age to try and get a college education, a lot of young people can’t afford to be on their own. (Non-college-educated woman, Columbus, OH)

When we returned to Columbus and Orlando this summer, we found that more and more middle-class families are adapting to the new economy by sharing housing with friends and families.  As one woman in Orlando told us, “I moved my mom in with me last month. I am currently supporting my mom; her factory shut down and she was on unemployment.”

Measuring the economy in this way—inter-generational housing—may well be a better indicator of our nation’s economic health than the stock market or GDP.  As last week’s anemic jobs report showed, the economy is still a long way from healthy—something we hope Congress will consider as partisans prepare for another potential showdown on the budget.

Photo: A. Currell via Flickr.com

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