More American Households 'Doubling Up' Amid Hard Times

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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.

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.
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    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.
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    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.
    Hide caption
    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.

Alex 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 hide caption

itoggle caption 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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