More grandparents than ever are raising their grandchildren and a significant portion of them are living in poverty, the Census Bureau (search) said in a report released Thursday.

About 19 percent of grandparent caregivers lived below the poverty line in 1999, compared with 14 percent of all families living with children.

The report, culled from 2000 census data, found that about a third of the 2.4 million grandparents who are primary caregivers to their grandchildren lived in a home without the child's parents.

In many cases, it's because one or both parents are in jail or on drugs, say advocacy groups who urged Congress to provide more help. They noted several bills are pending aimed at helping caregiving grandparents with basic costs and housing, though the full House and Senate have yet to vote on the measures.

"Those that need financial support deserve financial support to keep their families together and that's something that policy-makers have not dealt with yet," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which advocates for families in which elderly and young people live together.

One of the greatest needs is more outreach centers that could help these families find legal, financial, medical and social services, said Jim Parkel, president of AARP (search), the nation's largest organization for older Americans.

Diane Thibodeau, 50, of Sebring, Fla., has raised two grandsons — ages 2 and 3 — on her own since March 2002. She doesn't work anymore because of a back injury, her husband died two years ago, and she said the children's father is emotionally unstable and their mother had a drug problem.

Thibodeau said she gets $241 a month in public assistance for raising the two boys, along with $300 a month from the boys' father, and some disability pay. But she struggles sometimes to pay for such things as clothes or shoes. "What do you have to do, go begging?" she asked.

"But they're worth it," she said. "They don't know any other Mommy but me."

Congress first took interest in the plight of grandparents as caregivers while reforming the nation's welfare system in 1996, but since little government data existed on the issue, lawmakers ordered the Census Bureau to ask about it in 2000.

The census report expanded on previously released data from the 2000 head count. Specifically, three question on grandparents were asked on the "long-form" questionnaire distributed to about one of six households.

One question asked if a grandparent was responsible for "most of the basic needs" of a grandchild in the home. "Yes" was the answer from 42 percent, or 2.4 million, of the nearly 5.8 million grandparents living with a grandchild.

The closest the census had come in the past to addressing this issue was to estimate the percentage of children under 18 living in a grandparent-headed home. That was 6.3 percent in 2000, compared with 5.5 percent in 1990 and 3.6 percent in 1980.

The latest census report found that grandparents acted as caregivers most often in American Indian and black families. About 56 percent of Indian grandparents and 52 percent of black grandparents living with grandchildren identified themselves as the main caregivers.

The numbers for Indians and blacks are due in part to stronger cultural ties to grandparenting roles in those populations and because those groups tend to make less money and are more apt to have several generations living in the same home, said Roderick Harrison, a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which looks at issues concerning minorities.

The rates were 43 percent among non-Hispanic whites, 35 percent for Hispanics, and 20 percent for Asians.