How Nuclear is the Nuclear Family? Extended Family Investments in Children

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Although the American ideology of the family has a nuclear ideal, research suggests that American families rely upon extended family support to raise children. This study explores how transfers of money, time, and space (i.e. coresidence) from extended family members support children and their immediate families, given the needs and constraints of the family members (children, parents, grandparents) involved. Analyses in this study use nationally representative data about children and their families from the 1997 Panel Study of Income Dynamics and its accompanying Child Development Supplement.

Consistent with ideas drawn from social exchange theory and the life course perspective, this study finds that the high needs of children and their immediate families are associated with the transfer of resources from extended family members. The needs of children's immediate families (low family incomes, young mothers, one or no parents present in the household, caregivers employed part-time, government program participation) are particularly important for such transfers, more so than the needs of the children themselves, or the constraints of coresidential grandparents.

Considering the overall package of support children receive from extended family members, money, time, and coresidence all reflect different responses to need. Coresidence in a grandparent-headed household is the transfer of support most linked to the high needs of children and their immediate families. Grandparents who share their housing with their grandchildren also face considerable constraints themselves. Money transfers are likeliest when children and their families have high needs for such support, but, the greatest amounts of money are transferred to children and families who have relatively low needs for resources.

Finally, time transfers reflect considerable variation in extended family and grandparent involvement. While children and families with employment demands and child care needs are more likely to have grandparents and other extended family members serving as caregivers, other children spend time with grandparents and other extended family members, regardless of need. Time transfers may reflect a desire of grandparents and other extended family members to invest in the social capital of a family, and suggest that non-need based factors may be important for transfers of time to non-coresidential children.