A significant number of retirees in the U.S. find themselves confronted by an unexpected responsibility: childcare.
Census data show that 2.7 million grandparents have sole custody of their grandchildren; put another way, about one-tenth of American children live with their grandparents. And those numbers, calculated in 2010, might understate the situation given rising drug addiction rates in recent years.
It's a problem that resists easy diagnosis or political solutions. But one lawmaker thinks there's a way to mitigate some of the financial difficulty of the situation. Rep. Marc Veasey has introduced legislation providing a refundable tax credit to grandparents for each child under their care.
"Five hundred dollars, that's not all the money in the world," the Texas Democrat told the Washington Examiner. "This is just, to me, a small bit that can help people that are really struggling out there to raise their grandkids."
Veasey has personal experience with such circumstances, as his mother and siblings moved in with his grandparents when he was a child. More recently, J.D. Vance's bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy — hailed as an exposition of white working-class social crises — revolved around the relationship between Vance and his grandparents, who raised him as his mother struggled with drug addiction.
"That is not just an issue in one community," said Veasey, who is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. "You see it too often in African-American families, but it's even growing in the Latino and white community as well."
The refundable tax credit could be a far-reaching tax policy change. Of the households eligible for the $500 credit, the 2010 data showed 580,000 living on a poverty level income.
"I designed it for people on a fixed-income in mind," Veasey said. "This is a big and growing issue, as far as their everyday life. And it was something that they weren't expecting to do, but they're forced into a situation now to where they are the parents and will be until that child graduates from high school and college."
The proposal could be an unconventional point-of-entry to addressing other issues, he suggests. Veasey intends it at least partly as a response to the opioid epidemic of recent years, as drugs long have resulted in the breakup of families. Veasey thinks the tax credit would result in better data about the number of children dependent on grandparents.
"I know of situations where the grandparents raise the kids 95 percent of the year and then the parents come along long enough so that they can claim them on the taxes and then they go back and turn them over to grandma's for the rest of the year," he said. "And so, hopefully, this would encourage grandparents to get full responsibility or make parents step up to the plate."
Veasey's proposal comes at an unlikely time for new tax credits. Congressional Republicans are pursuing a tax reform overhaul, but much of the logic of that legislation relies upon eliminating most tax breaks. Veasey suggests that the cross-demographic nature of the issue could lead to more bipartisan support, however.
"It's an issue; it's growing," Veasey said. "And in my opinion, it's only going to continue to grow until we can do something about our drug problem. Because, whether it's drugs that are mostly associated with people that live in urban areas or people that live in heavy Republican areas, you're starting to see an increase in this. It doesn't seem like it's getting any better."
Veasey's bill doesn't address the drug problem or other dynamics that have resulted in grandparents taking on such a major childcare role, but it might provide a short-term help to those living on a pension or Social Security check.
"Now, they have to use that check to help pay for their grandkids in many instances," he said. "And they weren't planning to use that money on it. They were planning on using that money for necessities, maybe take a vacation while they're still healthy. But not for backpacks and school clothes."