WASHINGTON – America is swiftly becoming a granny state.
Less frail and more involved, today's grandparents are shunning retirement homes and stepping in more than ever to raise grandchildren while young adults struggle in the poor economy.
The newer grandparents are mainly baby boomers who are still working, with greater disposable income. Now making up 1 in 4 adults, grandparents are growing at twice the rate of the overall population and sticking close to family — if their grandkids aren't already living with them.
Grandparents in recent decades have often filled in for absent parents who were ill or battled addiction, or were sent to prison. The latest trend of grandparent involvement, reflected in census figures released Thursday, is now being driven also by the economy and the graying U.S. population, including the 78 million boomers born between 1946 and 1964 who began turning 65 this year.
"We help out in terms of running errands, babysitting, taking the grandkids to doctors' appointments, and for back-to-school shopping," said Doug Flockhart of Exeter, N.H., listing some of the activities that he and his wife, Eileen, do for their five kids and seven grandchildren. But that's just the start.
They also pitch in with health care payments for family members due to insurance gaps, and their pace of activity has picked up substantially since their daughter, who lives three blocks away, gave birth to her first child this month. Flockhart, a retired architect, likes the family time even if he and his wife worry about their grandkids' futures. Their oldest grandchild is 16.
"It's not so much the day in and day out, it's the big picture as to how these young kids will grow up and pay for a college education and buy a house," he said. "The middle class is so much less well-off than it used to be. We've put aside some savings for them, but with seven grandchildren it can only go so far."
Flockhart's situation is increasingly common, demographers say.
"Grandparents have become the family safety net, and I don't see that changing any time soon," said Amy Goyer, a family expert at AARP. "While they will continue to enjoy their traditional roles, including spending on gifts for grandchildren, I see them increasingly paying for the extras that parents are struggling to keep up with — sports, camps, tutoring or other educational needs, such as music lessons."
The latest numbers are based partly on separate analyses by Goyer and Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine who is now a population analyst for the MetLife Mature Market Institute. Their data were supplemented with the latest 2010 census figures as well as interviews with Census Bureau and other experts.
Currently about 5.8 million children, or nearly 8 percent of all children, are living with grandparents identified as the head of household, according to 50-state census data released Thursday. That's up from 4.5 million, or 6.3 percent, who lived in such households in 2000.
Much of the increase in grandparent caregivers occurred later in the decade after the recession eliminated jobs for many younger people, surveys indicate. The 8 percent share of children now living with grandparents is the largest in at least 40 years — and it is believed to be the largest share ever, the population experts say.
In all, there are 62.8 million grandparents in the U.S., the most ever. They are projected to make up roughly 1 in 3 adults by 2020.
Nearly half the states had increases of 40 percent or more over the last decade in the number of grandchildren living with grandparents. They were led by states such as Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona and Kentucky, which had influxes of young families or suffered higher rates of poverty.
On the other end of the scale, New Jersey, New York, Michigan and Louisiana saw the smallest increases, less than 10 percent. Each of those states saw slower population growth overall since 2000, particularly among young people.
The District of Columbia posted a decline of more than 20 percent in grandchildren living with grandparents, a sign of growing gentrification in the nation's capital in which smaller-sized white families are replacing black families with grandparent caregivers, who are moving to suburban areas.
Francese says the stereotype of grandparents who are frail, receding and dependent is changing. He noted that unemployment among workers ages 25 to 34 last year was double that of Americans aged 55 to 64. U.S. households headed by baby boomers also commanded almost half of the nation's total household income, and are more likely to be college graduates than grandparents in previous generations.
These grandparents reject living in senior communities in favor of "aging in place" in their own homes, near family. In 2009, households ages 55 or older spent billions of dollars on infant food, clothes, toys, games, tuition and supplies for grandchildren, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Grandparents are supposed to be old, gray-haired people tottering around, but the vast majority are actually in the work force," said Francese, who released a paper on the topic last month. "There is not much doubt that the recent recession has brought grandparents and grandchildren together."
The government figures come as a congressional supercommittee considers possible reductions to Medicare and Social Security to achieve $1.5 trillion in federal spending cuts under the terms of the debt ceiling agreement. Up until now, lawmakers' proposals to cut the entitlement programs have met resistance from older Americans, including those 45 and older, who now make up a majority of the voting-age population.
The committee must issue its recommendations by late November, with action by Congress before year's end, or various parts of government will face automatic spending cuts.
Estella Hyde, 65, who lives near Erie, Pa., said additional government aid — not spending cuts — would go a long way for grandparents. She and her husband have raised their granddaughter, now 18, off and on since she was a year old, when Hyde's daughter-in-law at the time said she didn't want the burden.
Eventually the Hydes were able to adopt their granddaughter legally, which allowed her to have coverage under their health plan, but only after the couple fought through red tape and paid $10,000 in adoption fees. After a difficult childhood, her granddaughter will attend college this fall.
"It never happens in a happy situation where a son or daughter comes and says, 'I need you to raise a child for me,'" said Hyde, a nursing professor who is now retired. "We were very lucky, we were able to financially take care of her and support her. But many grandparent caregivers need other sources of assistance."
In all, the states with the highest shares of children living in households headed by grandparents are in the South and West. They include Hawaii, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas, each with at least 1 in 10 children living in grandparent households.
Among the states with high concentrations of grandparents overall — regardless of their living arrangement — are Maine, West Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa and New Hampshire, according to some estimates.