Grandparents Day: The Role of Grandparents in US Society

In 1970, Marian McQuade, a West Virginia housewife, started a campaign to establish a special day to honor grandparents. In 1973, West Virginia became the first state with a special day to honor grandparents when Governor Arch Moore proclaimed May 27, 1973, to be Grandparents Day. As more states followed suit, it became clear that the idea of Grandparents Day was popular with the American people, and as often happens with ideas that are popular with the people, Capitol Hill began to get on board. Finally, in September 1978, Ms. McQuade, by then serving on the West Virginia Commission on Aging and the Nursing Home Licensing Board, got a call from the White House to inform her that on August 3, 1978, ​President of the United States Jimmy Carter would sign a federal proclamation establishing the first Sunday after Labor Day of every year as National Grandparents Day beginning in 1979.

“The elders of each family have the responsibility for setting the moral tone for the family and for passing on the traditional values of our Nation to their children and grandchildren. They bore the hardships and made the sacrifices that produced much of the progress and comfort we enjoy today. It is appropriate, therefore, that as individuals and as a nation, that we salute our grandparents for their contribution to our lives,” wrote President Carter.

In 1989, the United States Postal Service issued a tenth-anniversary commemorative envelope bearing the likeness of Marian McQuade in honor of National Grandparents Day.

Aside from setting moral tones, and keeping history and traditions alive, a surprising and growing number of grandparents actively care for their grandchildren. In fact, the Census Bureau estimates that some 5.9 million grandchildren under age 18 were living with a grandparent in 2015. Of those 5.9 million grandchildren, nearly half or 2.6 million were under age 6.

From the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are some interesting and revealing facts about America’s grandparents and their role as caregivers to their grandchildren. 

Some Basic Facts About US Grandparents

Grandfather holding hands with granddaughter, walking through park
Grandfather with Granddaughter. Tom Stoddart Archive / Getty Images

In a nation where nearly half the population is over age 40 and more than one in every four adults is a grandparent; there are currently an estimated 70 million grandparents in the United States. Grandparents represent one-third of the population with 1.7 million new grandparents added to the ranks every year.

Far from the stereotype of “old and frail,” most grandparents are Baby Boomers between 45 and 64 years old. Almost 75% of people in that age range are in the workforce, with most of them working full-time.

Also, far from being “dependent” on Social Security and their pensions, U.S. households headed by someone 45 to 64 years old control almost half (46%) of the nation’s total household income. If households headed by persons older than age 65 are added in, the grandparent age share of the nation’s income rises to 60%, which is a full 10% higher than it was in 1980.

7.8 Million Grandparents Have Grandchildren Living With Them

An estimated 7.8 million grandparents have one or more of their grandchildren under age 18 living with them, an increase of more than 1.2 million grandparents since 2006.

Some of these “ grandfamilies” are multigenerational households in which families pool resources and grandparents provide care so parents can work. In others, grandparents or other relatives have stepped in to keep children out of foster care when parents are unable to care for them. Sometimes grandparents have stepped in and a parent may still be present and live in the household but not providing for most of the basic needs of a child, such as a teen parent.

1.5 Million Grandparents Still Work to Support Grandchildren

More than 1.5 million grandparents are still working and are responsible for their own grandchildren under age 18. Among them, 368,348 are 60 years or older.

An estimated 2.6 million grandparents not only have one or more grandchild under age 18 living with them but are also responsible for providing for the basic daily needs of those grandchildren. Of these grandparent caregivers, 1.6 million are grandmothers and 1.0 million are grandfathers.

509,922 Grandparent-Caregivers Live Below Poverty Level

509,922 grandparents who are responsible for grandchildren under age 18 had incomes below the poverty level in the past 12 months, compared with the 2.1 million grandparent caregivers whose income was at or above the poverty level.

Children living with their grandparents are more likely to be living in poverty. One in four children who live with their grandparents is poor compared to one in five children living with their parents. Children raised solely by their grandmothers are most likely to be poor with almost half of them living in poverty.

The median income for families with grandparent householders responsible for grandchildren under age 18 is $51,448 a year. Among ​grandfamilies, where at least one parent of the grandchildren is not present, the median income is $37,580.

The Special Challenges Faced by Grandparent Caregivers

Many grandparents who are forced to take on the care of their grandchildren do so with little or no chance to plan for it in advance. As a result, they typically face unique challenges. Often lacking the necessary legal relationship to the children, grandparents are often unable to access educational enrollment, school services, or health care on their behalf. In addition, sudden caregiving responsibilities often leave grandparents without suitable housing. Grandparents forced to care for their grandchildren are often in their prime retirement savings years, but rather than saving for their retirement, they find themselves providing for their grandchildren. Finally, many retired grandparents lack the financial resources to take on the many extra expenses of raising children.