[Paleopsych] NYT: Financially-Set Grandparents Help Keep Families Afloat, Too
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Thu Jul 14 21:06:07 UTC 2005
Financially-Set Grandparents Help Keep Families Afloat, Too
By TAMAR LEWIN
When he got home from a three-day school camping trip last winter,
Schuyler Duffy, a 10th grader at Friends Seminary, told his parents he
had had a fantastic time and thanked them for sending him to that
Manhattan private school.
They reminded him that it was his grandparents who deserved the
"We want Schuyler to appreciate that if my dad weren't paying the
tuition, we probably wouldn't have been able to swing it," said
Schuyler's mother, Christine Wade.
Schuyler's grandparents, who live in Oakland, Calif., cushion their
grandson's life in other ways, too, paying for his summer French
program in Nova Scotia and helping with the purchase of an apartment
when his family was evicted from a rent-stabilized apartment in
It has become familiar news that grandparents are rearing millions of
American children whose parents are lost to drugs, mental illness or
prison. What has been less noticed - and less studied - is that even
where the parents are present and functioning, grandparents play
important roles in their grandchildren's lives. Some, like Ms. Wade's
parents, cover the costs for tuition and real estate down payments.
Others pay for summer camps, family vacations and braces. And some,
with more young mothers working, care for the grandchildren a day a
week or more.
For many American families, intergenerational help is now moving in a
new direction. "Thirty, 40 years ago, the money went up: you helped
your grandparents, you bought them this or that, they might have moved
in with you," said Timothy M. Smeeding, a professor of public policy
at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. "But now, all the money
comes down. Most elderly people today are better off than they thought
they would be, with the booming stock market of the 1990's, the rising
value of homes and the changes in Social Security. Meanwhile, their
kids are worse off than they thought they would be. So grandparents
Vern Bengtson, a sociologist and gerontologist at the University of
Southern California, says the growing involvement of grandparents has
been just as dramatic a change in American family life as the
unraveling of the nuclear family. While sociologists in recent decades
have bemoaned the high divorce rate and the percentage of children
born to single mothers, Professor Bengtson said, they have for the
most part overlooked the emergence of grandparents as an important
resource for family support and stability.
"For many Americans, multigenerational bonds are becoming more
important than nuclear family ties for well-being and support over the
course of their lives," he said.
There is, of course, nothing new about grandparents helping to support
their children's families; one way or another, grandparents have
always pitched in. But as demographic changes have reshaped life paths
both for older people and their adult children, the influence of
grandparents has expanded.
Perhaps because American culture places such emphasis on independence,
many people express discomfort about discussing intergenerational help
given or received. In dozens of interviews, grandparents said they did
not want their names used because they worried that it would embarrass
their children or did not want their grandchildren to know what they
were paying for.
"You'll have to ask my son whether he's comfortable having this in the
newspaper," a Manhattan grandmother said.
That son said no; like many others in the middle generation, he did
not want it known that he was not his family's sole support.
The near-taboo on the subject, Professor Bengtson said, indicates a
cultural lag, with the prevailing norms and attitudes trailing far
behind what is actually going on.
The very presence of grandparents in their grandchildren's lives is
far more common than it used to be. The likelihood that a 20-year-old
these days will have a living grandmother (91 percent) is higher than
the likelihood that a 20-year-old in 1900 had a living mother (83
percent), according to an analysis by Peter R. Uhlenberg, a professor
at the University of North Carolina. And, while 40 years ago, 29
percent of Americans over 65 lived below the poverty line, by 2003
poverty among the elderly had declined by nearly two-thirds.
At the same time, this generation of 20- and 30-somethings are taking
longer to finish their education and reach self-sufficiency. "Our
culture has changed so that education is priced so high, and lasts so
long, that this phenomenon of economic dependency lasts much longer
than it used to," said Professor Bengtson, himself a grandfather who
goes to Santa Barbara each week to spend a day or two with his
year-old granddaughter, Zoe Paloma Lozano.
Professor Bengtson has measured the growing involvement of
grandparents with the college students he teaches. For 20 years, he
has been giving his students a questionnaire on how they are financing
college; in just the last few years, grandparents' contributions have
displaced jobs and borrowing and moved into third place, after
parental help and scholarships.
With tuition edging toward $30,000 a year, many Manhattan private
schools have also noticed an increase in support from grandparents. At
Trevor Day School, Donald D. Mordecai, assistant head for finance and
operations, said the school was seeing more checks from grandparents
in recent years.
"I would say anecdotally that over the last three years, as the
tuition's gone up, we began to see more grandparents sending in the
checks," Mr. Mordecai said. "I'd guess that maybe 15 to 20 percent of
the kids, especially the younger ones, have tuition paid by their
For wealthy grandparents, tuition payments can be a good
estate-planning device. Under so-called 529 plans, Martin L.
Greenberg, an accountant at Rosen, Seymour, Shapss, Martin & Company,
said, a grandparent could contribute $55,000 toward a grandchild's
college tuition without triggering any gift tax. And private-school
tuition paid directly to the school does not count as a gift.
"My father pays tuition for the girls, and I'm just grateful beyond
belief," said Sunny Bates, who has one daughter at the Dalton School
in Manhattan and another joining her there this year. "I think that's
incredibly common. You have all these people who grew up in New York
when it wasn't so ridiculously expensive, and are now in careers in
the arts, or the nonprofits, that don't pay very much, and they
couldn't possibly give their children the kind of life they had
without some help."
In both older generations, a few of those interviewed confessed an
unhappy undercurrent to their intergenerational help. A few
grandparents admitted feeling that their continuing financial help had
spoiled their children and left them with an unseemly sense of
"I'm hearing a little more from my grandson these days, and I know
it's because they're about to ask me to pay his college tuition," said
one Manhattan grandmother, wearily. "I'll do it, like I've always done
everything for them. But I don't think it's been so good for them."
And some adult children can feel infringed on, when the grandmother
who comes to care for the baby two days a week criticizes the mother's
child-rearing, or the grandparents who make the down payment offer
forceful suggestions about decorating the apartment.
"I take the money, I'm grateful, but I also feel like it keeps me
under their thumb in a way that doesn't feel good," said one woman
whose in-laws pay for her 10-year-old's private school tuition, camp,
and tutoring. "And I think it makes it harder to say no when they ask
us to visit or do things with them. It's somehow like they're calling
the shots in our lives."
Still, in many families, grandparents are the secret ingredient that
make the difference between a life of struggle and one of relative
In a posting last year on the Web site of the Berkeley Parents
Network, which does not include names, one mother asked why her own
husband's salary of $80,000 did not seem to be enough to pay for the
kind of life her neighbors had. "Where are you getting all this
money??" she asked.
"Interesting question and one I have had myself many, many times,"
said one of the responses. "The way everyone I know is 'doing it'
(nice cars, expensive houses, vacations, 'best' schools, etc.) is with
money from their parents and grandparents. Seriously. Those down
payments come from grandma and grandpa, and so does private school for
the kids. Once I realized that (because friends let it 'slip') it all
started to make more sense to me."
In New York City, Sid Whelan and Lisa Waller and their daughters,
Genevieve, 6, and Gabrielle, 2, get different kinds of help from the
two sets of grandparents.
Ms. Waller's parents, George and Lula Nunley, moved to New York from
Chicago not long after Genevieve was born. At first, the Nunleys had
their own apartment, in the same building as the Whelan/Waller family.
But there was a constant flow between the apartments, so Mr. Whelan, a
real estate agent and musician, suggested that they buy a Harlem
townhouse big enough for all of them.
Mr. Whelan's parents, who are divorced, helped with the purchase.
"My dad gave us a bridge loan, and my mom gave us an interest-only
loan," Mr. Whelan said. "They've helped with tuition and music lessons
too." Ms. Waller's parents now live on the top floor of the townhouse.
"Obviously in the back of my head, I think I should be able to do it
all on my own," Mr. Whelan said, "and at times I do feel guilty for
getting so much help. But at the same time, I think it's good that the
kids know their grandparents and know what they're doing for them."
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