ALTHOUGH THE shelves in my home office are packed with books by financial experts offering really good advice, it was my grandmother Big Mama who taught me most of what I know about handling money.
And she did it while living below the poverty line. To this day, I marvel at how Big Mama raised five grandchildren on her tiny salary. Pride and frustration with the welfare system made her refuse monetary assistance from the state.
At times we may not have had enough for seconds during meals, but we never went hungry. I got teased for the off-brand sneakers and clothes I wore, but it was more than I had before I went to live with my grandmother.
It was under Big Mama's guidance that I learned to loathe debt and love saving.
Currently, about 2.7 million grandparents in the United States are responsible for raising their grandchildren. Many of these grandparents live below the poverty line.
As we continue to discuss the plight of poverty and ways to lift families financially, we've got to pay special attention to this group of folks. And who are they?
About 35 percent of these grandparents are 60 or older, according to a report by Generations United, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, and Citi Community Development. A majority of them are still working. A quarter of them have a disability. Forty percent have provided care for five years or more. My grandmother took me in when I was 4. I lived with her until a year after I graduated from college.
Then there is this sad fact: Grandparents who have taken in their grandchildren are twice as likely to face the threat of hunger as those who aren't raising a grandchild.
Earlier this year, researchers went to Illinois and New Jersey and interviewed 20 grandparent caregivers, focusing on their financial lives. Most were grandmothers ranging in age from 47 to 89.
The people profiled in the report had taken in their grandchildren because their parents had died, had lost a job, were incarcerated or suffered from an illness or substance abuse.
Several caregivers talked about the high cost of getting custody or the struggles of seeking child support from the parents. One Chicago grandmother talked about the burdensome cost of repeatedly going to court to deal with a custody issue with the father of a child she is raising. The average annual income of the caregivers' households was just a little more than $25,000. Not many were receiving child support from parents. And those who did get it said it wasn't enough, of course.
When you read the stories of the grandparents trying to hold things together financially, it's heart-wrenching. It's also inspirational.
"What's going out leaves faster than what's coming in," one Chicago grandmother said. "By the time I finish paying the bills and I also tithe, I pray that nothing comes up because I have nothing to give. I'm just making it. Or, as they say, I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Even the grandparent caregivers who are managing OK worry about getting sick as they get older, which so easily could disrupt the delicate financial balance they are maintaining.
So why is this report important?
"We learned from low-income grandparents themselves about their financial situation, stresses and dreams," said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which also runs the National Center on Grandfamilies. "We found they were skilled money managers, they just don't have enough to manage. Time and again, grandparents related stories about spending down retirement savings and mortgaging assets to try to either cover legal fees or simply to provide for the children in their care. They prioritize the children's dreams over their own."
As a member of the National Center on Grandfamilies' advisory council, I'm part of a mission to bring attention to the needs of the many grandparents who are making great personal and financial sacrifices to raise their grandchildren.
It's vital that we find ways to help those who raise grandchildren who otherwise would end up in an already overloaded and underfunded system.
As Butts points out, when grandparents are able to keep children out of the foster-care system, the country benefits from the cost savings. "Grand success stories are abundant. From President Obama to Jamie Foxx to Carol Burnett. And they could have been throwaway kids, lost and forgotten, if it hadn't been for the strong grandmothers who raised them."