More American Households 'Doubling Up' Amid Hard Times

New census data show that record numbers of adults over age 35 are packing up and moving in with relatives. Nearly half a million have done so in the past two years. That's compared with 400,000 young adults in the 25-to-34 age group. Overall, American households with extended family have increased by more than 11 percent. Host Michel Martin discusses the "doubling up" phenomenon with NPR Digital Media correspondent Corey Dade, and Tondalah Stroud, a 37-year-old mom who, along with her husband, 9-year-old son and two dogs, moved back into her childhood home with her 56-year-old mother.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I share my thoughts about the recent tragedy at Rutgers University in my weekly "Can I Just Tell You?" commentary.

But first, fall is clearly here, and as we head toward Halloween and eventually the holidays, some of you might already be thinking ahead to traditional family gatherings - those memorable meals, when familial bonds are often tested over turkey.

But for a growing number of adult children, reconnecting with kin is more than just a holiday affair. New census data shows that record numbers of adults over the age of 35 are packing up and moving in with relatives. Nearly half a million have done so in the past two years. That's compared with 400,000 young adults in the 25-34 age group. Overall, American households with extended family have increased by more than 11 percent.

I'm joined in the studio now by NPR digital correspondent Corey Dade, who has reported on the doubling-up phenomenon. Also with us, Tondalah Stroud. She's a 37-year-old mom who along with her husband, 9-year-old son and two dogs, moved back into her childhood home along with her 56-year-old mother. And she's with us from Chicago. And I welcome you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

COREY DADE: Thank you.

Ms. TONDALAH STROUD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Corey, what got you onto this story? What made you see this phenomenon?

DADE: Michel, this came from a story that we wrote about two weeks ago, looking at the updated poverty statistics that come out every year. And within that data, we found increasing numbers of people who were actually moving in with other people. It was having an influence on the poverty rate. And what we found is when adults moved in with other people who were a little bit more financially secure, the poverty levels of those struggling adults actually went down. So it had a benefit to them. And so from that, that's when we found far more numbers of people moving in with relatives to save money.

MARTIN: And Tondalah, is that your story? I understand that you're back in the bedroom you grew up in.

Ms. STROUD: Yes, I am. And that is definitely my story. My husband and I decided to move in with my mom because we wanted to find a way to decrease our debt, as well as invest more money into our business that we have. And so after receiving an offer from the military to rent out our home, we had about two weeks to make a decision. And we called my mother and asked, and made the decision to go ahead with her because it would help her as well as us and the business.

MARTIN: And can I ask: What was the precipitating event? Was it job loss? Was it hours being cut? Forgive me - was there a crisis? Or...

Ms. STROUD: No, there was no crisis. In our home that we rented out, the taxes had gone up, and we had lots of credit card debt - as well as medical bills - that we really wanted to pay down because we have a business that we had just launched in 2008. And so with the economy, and given the banks not wanting to really give loans to small businesses, we really didn't have an option in terms of being able to invest more cash into the business.

So we decided one of the best things to do was to go ahead and rent out the house in order to generate some additional income and move in with my mother in order to help to pay down some of the credit card debt that we incurred due to us investing into our own business. And so, in the short term, we knew that it would also help my mom to pay down some of her credit debt as well.

MARTIN: Because you're paying - are you paying rent?

Ms. STROUD: Yes.

MARTIN: To her?

Ms. STROUD: Yes.

MARTIN: I see. So what's it been like?

Ms. STROUD: Well, it's - actually, it hasn't been that bad. I thought, originally, when we first moved in that it may become difficult or, you know -you just hear the horror stories of fighting with your parents or the person that you moved in with. And actually, it's been very good. I think that my husband and my mom have developed a closer relationship. My mom definitely loves having my son there every day. And the biggest benefit of all is, you know, we're - all have the ability to contribute more money toward some of the debt that we had as well as to, you know, the business because of it. So it's actually been a pretty good decision that we made.

MARTIN: So you're paying rent, but you're not paying as much rent as you would be paying if you were still in your own home.

Ms. STROUD: Exactly.

MARTIN: Okay. And I do have to ask, because I know your husband is - came with you, although he's not sitting with you at the moment. I can see where this might be a little tough for him, having - this is - you're kind of returning to the nest, and sometimes people regress a little bit when they go home and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...start acting like the 15-year-old they used to be, as opposed to the grown-up mom that they are now. And I could see where for him, he might feel that this is a little bit of a loss of autonomy, privacy. How's he doing?

Ms. STROUD: Well, if you were to talk to him, what he would say is - this is exactly what he actually told me right before we came here. I said, you know, what are your thoughts? And he said, actually, you know, I feel as though me and your mom's relationship has grown since then, you know.

But we've been married for four years, and so he feels as if he knows her better and understands her even more now. And actually, to me, he's really living it up because she fixes lunch every day. He gets these nice, luscious salads and, you know, we come home and she's folded his clothes. And in addition to what I do for him, to me, I think he has a pretty good deal going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, how about you? Do you feel any kind of - here you were running your own show, your kitchen, your house, your rules, and now you're back in Mom's house, Mom's kitchen, Mom's rules. How's it for - how are you doing?

Ms. STROUD: Well, I'm actually doing okay. And the reason why, too, I think that we may be a little different than some is we actually have opposite hours. So my mom works nights, so when - she's usually not there when we are there. When she's coming in, we're asleep. When we leave, she sleeps. And so we really - it's kind of a tag in the household.

And so I would say, probably the most challenging part of this all is, we really don't have an opportunity to have company over. And I would say that's probably the biggest thing that we're missing. We have a lot of adds to being there. But the biggest thing we're missing is our social life. And it's a sacrifice right now. We're used to having large barbecues and having people over. And - but at the same time, I would say between the three of us, we're also working toward a goal. And so because that goal is set in front of us, we don't really take time to look at what we're missing because we're together, but we're looking at ultimately, the goal that we're trying to meet.

MARTIN: Well, different hours - that could be a recipe for family harmony, you know. Who knows what...

Ms. STROUD: It is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know, Corey, one of the things that I was struck by in your reporting is that we know that the younger adults, the 18- to 24-year-olds, are having a very difficult time in the job market. And yet you find that the largest group of so-called boomerang kids are people like Tondalah - who's 35 and older. Why do you think that is?

Mr. DADE: Well, for starters, they're a larger group in number. So the age range actually goes from 35 up to 64. Of course, that number, the largest percentage of them is going to be under 50. But I think that what the census data show, and other data show, and my interviews with - for the story show that this is directly connected to job loss, certainly in the last two years. And when you talk about job loss, this has hit people who are professionals, who have been out in the workplace for longer periods of time.

You also talk about the foreclosure crisis. This affected the middle-aged people who are higher numbers of homeowners than - say, folks in their 20s. So as a result, they're going to have perhaps much more collateral damage than someone who's in their 20s who has less experience, fewer assets, etc.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the rising number of adult children moving back in with their parents and other family members as the economic recession has taken its toll.

With us to talk more about this is NPR digital correspondent Corey Dade, who's been reporting on this phenomenon, and Tondalah Stroud. She's a 37-year-old mom who along with her husband and young son, has moved back in with her mother in the Chicago area.

So Corey, we know, also, that minority groups, particularly African-Americans, have been particularly hard-hit by job loss and unemployment in the economic downturn. Is there any correlation in the Census Bureau data on the increase in these groups?

Mr. DADE: Yes. When you look at it, there are higher instances of non-white, non-Hispanics moving in with relatives. And all the data point to African-Americans in particular, but people of color, in general, being hardest hit.

When you look at income and poverty levels, Asian-Americans are the group whose poverty level remained flat - did not grow, did not increase. They actually fared better than every other group, including whites.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

Mr. DADE: For starters, they're a smaller group. But beyond that, by comparison, by percentage - by proportion, rather - they have higher degrees of education, higher incomes, and they're more entrepreneurial. They tend to own their own businesses. Their families tend to be employees or partners in their businesses. So they've been able to solidify themselves economically a little bit better.

MARTIN: And the intergenerational household is not at all uncommon in a lot of ethnic families. So in a way, it's back to the future.

Mr. DADE: Yeah. In a way, it is. It's a double-edge sword when you talk about multifamily households because on the one hand, they're able to pool their resources financially. But on the other hand, in the case of an economic downturn, that actually masks the severity of the economic times on individuals - because the government can't properly assess the economic conditions of each individual adult in that household.

MARTIN: So in fact, you're saying that the poverty numbers that we've already seen, which are pretty disturbing, would actually be even more disturbing were it not for the fact that people are consolidating their households.

Mr. DADE: Easily. In one of our data points in the story, we look at the poverty rate among this group. If you look at the number of adults under the same roof from 2009, the poverty rate for them was roughly 17 percent nationwide. And that's because the incomes of the folks who moved in with relatives was taken into account, was combined with the incomes of the homeowners who owned - the relatives who owned the house. But if you look at the incomes of those individuals who moved in with the relatives, just separate it out, that poverty level goes from 17 percent to 44 percent.

MARTIN: Wow. That's pretty stunning. Okay, Tondalah, a final thought from you. You told us that you really weren't hard up against it when you moved in with your mom. You were actually trying to - kind of stabilize your situation, and see if you could get a little bit ahead. What's your time frame? How long do you think it'll be before you can move to the next stage of your lives?

Ms. STROUD: Actually, we're looking to begin looking for a new home in early spring because by then, we will have paid off some additional debt. We were in a 900-square-foot store location for our business, and now we have opened a 4,000-square-foot location. And so we're trying to stabilize some things there. And we anticipate that by spring, we should have the bulk of credit card debt paid off - and some additional debt that has been incurred from opening up the new location - and be able to begin looking for a new home. And so we made a commitment to ourselves as well as to my mother what the goal would be, and that we wouldn't be there permanently...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STROUD: ...and we wouldn't take advantage. And I think that's one of the key things, also - you know, moving in with a relative - is making sure that you don't take advantage. And so our goal is definitely, by early spring, to be out. And of course, by then, we're also looking to have stabilized - like I say - the new business, and be able to move forward.

MARTIN: And then hopefully, you'll have that big barbecue that you've been missing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STROUD: Yes.

MARTIN: All right. Tondalah Stroud just moved her family back in with her mom, just outside of Chicago. And as you've heard her tell you herself, things are going pretty well, and we're happy about that.

Corey Dade is an NPR digital correspondent. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. DADE: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. STROUD: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read Corey's additional reporting on this subject, please go to our website; we'll link to it. Just go to npr.org; click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

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For Many Families, Bad Times Require 'Doubling Up'

  • Rowena Suckow (right) lives in a double-wide trailer with with her 8-year-old son, Connor, who has Asperger's syndrome, and her mother, Willie Pate, 73. Suckow moved to Florida from North Carolina.
    Hide caption
    Rowena Suckow (right) lives in a double-wide trailer with with her 8-year-old son, Connor, who has Asperger's syndrome, and her mother, Willie Pate, 73. Suckow moved to Florida from North Carolina.
    Jason Henry for NPR
  • Pate used to live in the neighboring town of Melrose, Fla., but moved in with her daughter in Keystone Heights. She spends most of the time in her room and often disagrees with her daughter.
    Hide caption
    Pate used to live in the neighboring town of Melrose, Fla., but moved in with her daughter in Keystone Heights. She spends most of the time in her room and often disagrees with her daughter.
  • Connor Suckow chases a stray cat around the backyard of their Keystone Heights home. Rowena says that it's hard to live with a relative, especially after being used to living on your own.
    Hide caption
    Connor Suckow chases a stray cat around the backyard of their Keystone Heights home. Rowena says that it's hard to live with a relative, especially after being used to living on your own.
  • Connor plays in their backyard before suddenly becoming tired after extreme energy exertion. "His pill must be wearing off," his mother says.
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    Connor plays in their backyard before suddenly becoming tired after extreme energy exertion. "His pill must be wearing off," his mother says.
  • Rowena hugs Connor. She says she looks forward to moving out of the trailer park and into a better home. The trailer that they inhabit is one of the few livable trailers left at the park.
    Hide caption
    Rowena hugs Connor. She says she looks forward to moving out of the trailer park and into a better home. The trailer that they inhabit is one of the few livable trailers left at the park.
  • Rowena and Connor stand outside their Keystone Heights trailer. Her family is not unfamiliar with living together, as many of her other siblings and relatives do the same — including one sister who lives in a neighboring town and has taken in her adult daughter and son-in-law.
    Hide caption
    Rowena and Connor stand outside their Keystone Heights trailer. Her family is not unfamiliar with living together, as many of her other siblings and relatives do the same — including one sister who lives in a neighboring town and has taken in her adult daughter and son-in-law.
  • The park is located along the busy Florida 100 highway, only feet from speeding cars. Many of the trailers are uninhabited.
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    The park is located along the busy Florida 100 highway, only feet from speeding cars. Many of the trailers are uninhabited.

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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.

Alex Vila-Roger and Sherry Shaffer in Pittsburgh, where they now live in the attic of in-laws home.

hide captionAlex Vila-Roger and Sherry Shaffer downsized from a big home in Memphis to the attic of a relative's house in Pittsburgh after their real estate business went sour.

Vaughn Wallace for NPR

"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.

An Explosion In Extended Families

The weak U.S. economy, and the high unemployment that has come with it, have forced many older Americans to move in with relatives. That's one reason the growth in that type of living arrangement has far outpaced the growth in that segment of the population. In 2010 there were 159 million Americans who were 35 or older, up 14.1 percent from the year 2000. But the 12.5 million in that age group who were living with relatives was up 36.4 percent:

Growth in extended families:

"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.

"Our nerves are shot because we siblings, we love our family but we don't like living with them," Suckow says. "It's like one big holiday dinner that won't end. You can't go home after the turkey is carved."

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.

A Note On Our Reporting

NPR used its Facebook page to look for people who have moved in with family because of the economic downturn. The query generated nearly 600 responses within just a few days, including some from those quoted in this story.

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."

Editors' note: April 12, 2011

The guest for this report (Tondalah Stroud) was obtained from an original report written by Aisha I. Jefferson for Black Enterprise magazine.

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