Mike Hughes Jr. was a baby when he came to live with his grandparents, Robert and Joannie Hughes, who are the 11-year-old's legal guardians. Their son, Michael Sr., was killed in a car crash on his way to work two months before Mike's birth.
The lingering sadness from the family tragedy hasn't dimmed the Hugheses' gratitude for the stability of their lives together: They own their modest North Sacramento home, which Robert inherited from his mother. Mike receives survivor benefits from Social Security. And Robert, who retired in 2004, has a small pension from his longtime job with the city of Sacramento's tree service.
"And we have this guy," said Robert Hughes, 66, smiling at his grandson across the family's leafy front yard. "We're fortunate."
But many grandparents raising grandkids need assistance – and often can't find it.
In what used to be called the golden years, a surging number of grandparents are slammed with continued family obligations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of grandkids living with a grandparent has risen an astonishing 64 percent in the past two decades.
Most of those 7 million families included three generations – but not all of them. Across the country in 2010, 2.7 million American grandparents were solely responsible for the basic needs of grandchildren living with them; more than 21 percent of those families lived in poverty.
Roughly 300,000 California grandparents – 65,000 of them past the age of 65 – have primary responsibility for their grandchildren.
As the numbers have grown, so has the size of a particularly desperate sliver of grandparents who fall through the cracks in near-poverty, ineligible for assistance and services.
An estimated half of California's custodial grandparents past age 65 live in a land of need. Their fixed income exceeds the federal poverty line of $14,470 but doesn't reach the average of $28,809 it takes to fund basic needs in California, according to a recent study from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
And without meeting federal poverty standards, they don't qualify fully for benefits including food stamps, public housing support and Medi-Cal.
Their grandkids do without. So do they.
"We're already seeing older adults not getting enough to meet their own needs through Social Security and SSI," said Susan Smith, managing director of Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which helped research the UCLA study.
"They worked and paid into the system. They played by the rules. They thought they'd have enough to get by in retirement. And here they need more to pay for these kids."
Census figures show that about 14,500 grandparents in the four-county Sacramento region are directly responsible for raising their grandchildren. Two-thirds of them are grandmothers, raising their grandchildren alone.
Almost one-third of the grandparents raising grandkids in the Sacramento region have some sort of disability. Only 44 percent of them still work. And 12 percent live below the federal poverty line.
Dysfunction plays a role
The recession bears much of the blame.
The vast majority of today's grandparent-headed families – "grandfamilies," as some experts put it – live in multigenerational households created by the long economic slide, with several adults under the same roof working and sharing the demands of child-rearing.
But the downturn played a smaller role in the rise of so-called "skip-generation" households of custodial grandparents. Experts say child welfare issues and family dysfunction are behind most of that increase.
"The growth in skip-generation families is about substance abuse problems, incarceration, the high divorce rate and mental health issues," said AARP's national expert on family issues, Amy Goyer.
Parents deploying overseas with the military were also a factor, she said.
The majority of skip-generation grandparents never obtain formal guardianship or custody of the grandkids. They simply see an urgent need when a crisis occurs or a chronic problem balloons out of control, and they step in to help.
"It's really a struggle for them to raise these kids," Goyer said. "It's such a testament to the human spirit. They have their grandkids, and they want to do the right thing. But if they had a little bit of help, it could make a difference."
Avoiding the system carries a steep price. Grandparents given formal kinship custody through the child welfare system generally qualify for monthly foster care payments, and their grandkids receive Medi-Cal and other financial benefits.
For other grandparents, CalWorks assistance for children and food stamps also can be available.
"But if they get through the labyrinth of eligibility rules, they still end up with less than they need," said Steven Wallace, associate director of UCLA's Center for Health Policy Research. The center created the Elder Index, a scale that's twice the federal poverty level, as a more realistic measure of elders' financial need.
In Sacramento County, the Elder Index calculates that a single older renter needs a basic income of $22,501 to survive. And if that renter is raising one grandchild, she needs $28,136.
"There is nothing in that number that's discretionary," he said. "Nothing. There's no Little League. There's no trip to your aunt's over the summer.
"It's paying rent and having food. How are people surviving?"
They choose. They split their pills to stretch the prescription longer. Or they juggle whether to pay the utilities from month to month. They go to food closets and resale shops. They make do.
Elder advocates are pressing for the Elder Index to be used on a federal level to calculate benefits, including affordable housing eligibility.
As Area 4 Agency on Aging's executive director, Pam Miller, said: "There's a huge void in programs, and there's a huge void in funding to help these grandparents get help. It's very difficult. Most of what's out there is peer support."
Support group formed
In 1991, Cora Keeton took in four of her grandchildren, three of them still in diapers: 5-month-old twins and a 2-year-old, plus a 4-year-old. She was single and working, and she fought for guardianship after her son died.
Typically, the children who come to live with custodial grandparents are special needs children, perhaps born drug- or alcohol-exposed, perhaps scarred early in life by the dysfunction and instability of their homes of origin.
"You don't know what to do when you get your grandchildren," said Keeton, now 65, who lives in North Sacramento. "There were really no resources for us. And there's nothing in your budget for raising grandchildren – not for child care, nothing like that.
"It was overwhelming emotionally, financially, every which way you can think of. And when it comes to being a single grandmother, it's more overwhelming."
She started attending a grandparents' group in south Sacramento and within a few years' time formed the North Sacramento Grandparents Support Group. Its 65 members meet twice each month to learn about medical, legal and financial resources – and to connect.
The group's youngest member is 42; the oldest, a great-grandmother raising her great-grandchildren, is 85.
"We do have a choice," said Keeton. "I had to look into my heart. I knew I could not let my grandchildren go into foster care."
A number of her group's members have fallen, raising their risk for broken bones, head injuries and stroke, so she's offering fall prevention workshops in the future.
And what happens to the grandkids if their aging grandparents grow ill and frail? That's one of the reasons custodial grandparents hesitate to ask for help, said Keeton: They don't want the child welfare system taking the kids away.
"It speaks to the spirit and resilience of these grandparents," said the Insight Center's Smith. "They might not be physically able to pick up the kids. But they want to raise them. That speaks to the bond and love and wanting to see hope for the future."
For Mike Hughes Jr., a warm summer afternoon of chores awaited with his grandfather and a cousin. In a few months, he'll enter the sixth grade at Robla Elementary School. Right now, he had a different plan for his day.
"I'd like to be sleeping," he said.
Their normal family life – camping a few weeks ago, Little League when Mike was younger – is a luxury many custodial grandparents can't provide.
"For some grandparents, activities amount to taking food out of the kids' mouths," said Joannie Hughes, 59.
She knows how deep the need is: She and her husband have attended Keeton's North Sacramento Grandparents Support Group meetings for eight years.
"Joannie and I basically provide the main dish for each meeting's potluck," said Robert Hughes. "At the last meeting of each month, a dozen grandparents take home a lot of food, and you know that will be the meal for the kids that night.
"And maybe the next night, too."
Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her in Twitter @AnitaCreamer.