For Many Families, Bad Times Require 'Doubling Up'

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NPR
By: Corey Dade
September 30, 2010

As they struggle to cope with a chronically weak economy that's falling well short of replacing the 8.5 million jobs lost since 2007, a rapidly growing number of American adults are moving in with relatives in the hope of avoiding financial ruin.

These aren't just 20-somethings back living with Mom and Dad.

Many are experienced, once-successful professionals, entrepreneurs and others -- like Sherry Shaffer and her husband, owners of a failed real estate business in Memphis who vacated their six-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home in Tennessee for her brother-in-law's attic in Pittsburgh.

"We fought it because you don't want to be a burden on your family, but in the end we had no choice," says Shaffer. "We're both college graduates; had been successful. We'd done everything right and now, all of a sudden, we're 40 years old -- this happens. It was embarrassing."

More adults ages 35 or older are packing up their households and bunking with in-laws, siblings, parents or other kin. It's happening at a historically high rate, according to new Census Bureau estimates. Nearly 500,000 such folks moved in with family over the past two years, compared with some 400,000 in the 25-to-34 age group traditionally known for returning to live with parents. Together, the two groups drove an 11.4 percent increase in the number of U.S. households containing extended families.

Indeed, the downturn has pushed more people of all ages to cohabit. The total number of multifamily households, including nonrelated roommates, has risen 11.6 percent -- to 15.4 million -- since 2008. But the surge's impact is especially profound among the older adults, accelerating a pattern begun during the 2000 recession: 3.4 million more Americans ages 35 and older have moved in with relatives over the decade. Their numbers increased twice as fast as the age group's population.

Technically, census data show, taking refuge among family kept nearly 2 million people out of poverty last year. But that estimate doesn't tell the whole story of how some are suffering.

A Natural Response To Hard Times

Particularly hard hit by job losses and foreclosures, many such adults say moving in with family, much as they resisted, has eased their financial burdens. Census Bureau and economic analysts say the decision is a natural response given the potential benefits.

"If you think about a scenario where people have to pay child care and a relative comes to live with the family and is able to provide child care, that's a substantial savings," Emory University economist David Frisvold says. "Then there is sharing rent or mortgage costs or, to a much lesser extent, saving money on food expenses, just because it's cheaper to serve food for more people. So the savings can be quite substantial."

Rowena Suckow, a 48-year-old school bus driver, says she and her 8-year-old son "are doing much better" since moving with her 73-year-old mother into a double-wide trailer in Keystone Heights, Fla. In April, she left North Carolina when budget cuts at the school district there ended her hopes of becoming a teaching assistant.

Suckow admits feeling uncomfortable at having to share space with her mother after living alone for many years. She often commiserates with her two sisters and brother, who all are in similar arrangements. One sister, who lives in a neighboring town, has taken in an adult daughter and son-in-law. Her other sister lost her job while pregnant and took her family to live with in-laws in Jacksonville. Suckow's brother, a schoolteacher in Tampa, is heavily indebted with his late wife's medical bills and stays with his father-in-law to save money.

But It May Cover Up Some Problems

Despite the clear upside, the practice of "doubling up" in homes can mask the severe economic troubles of millions of Americans.

That is because the government determines the economic status of live-in "subfamilies" by combining their wages with the incomes of their homeowning relatives.

"When you see groups of people combining, especially a lower-income group with a higher-income group, the poverty level goes down," says Chuck Nelson of the agency's division of housing and household economic statistics. "It definitely improves their economic circumstances to be part of this larger group."

For example, last year's poverty rate for the nation's 4.3 million live-in families was 17 percent, based on the incomes of all related adults under a single roof. This means roughly 731,000 of all live-in families were officially classified as poor.

However, the picture is far worse for live-in relatives when their incomes are calculated separately: Their poverty rate then soars to 44 percent, trapping about 1.9 million of those families.

Likewise, the official poverty rate of adults ages 24 to 36 living with their parents was 8.5 percent. If the rate were measured solely on their own incomes, 43 percent of young adults living at home would have dropped below the poverty threshold.

Seven Adults, Two Kids, Two Bathrooms

By the government's measurements, Alex and Melissa David of Minneapolis had a household income last year of $110,000 to $120,000. If that seems too high for the manager of a supermarket deli section and a part-time social worker, it is. The couple actually earned about $80,000 last year. The higher estimate includes the wages of Melissa's brother and his girlfriend and two friends -- all of whom lived with the Davids until earlier this year.

At the peak, the house was home to seven adults, along with the Davids' two young children. They were squeezed into five bedrooms and two bathrooms. Each tenant experienced periods of unemployment or underemployment, but all anted up enough rent to reduce Melissa and Alex's share of the $1,800 monthly mortgage to $200.

"It was awesome," says Melissa David, 31. Without the extra money, "it would have been awful. When the [housing] bubble burst we still would have had this same mortgage to deal with. ... It wouldn't have been nearly as easy without all the family and friends here."

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