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"Living on the Edge: Doubled-up Families in America"

May/June 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

by Diana M. Pearce

Over the last decade, the United States experienced a housing crisis, most visibly in the form of burgeoning homelessness, as housing prices outstripped family incomes and government housing programs and subsidies were drastically cut back. One less visible, but no less real, manifestation of this crisis is the increase in doublingup. This PRRAC-funded study was undertaken to document that increase, and to determine the extent and nature of doubling-up among families. It was prompted by scattered information that increasing numbers of homeless families were doubled-up before they became homeless, and that many homeless families were going from shelters back into doubled-up situations. Almost nothing was known about the phenomenon of families doubling-up, although it was widely believed to be an unstable situation, often unhealthy psychologically and physically, and highly correlated with homelessness. The minimal information published by the Census Bureau is only on subfamilies, usually unrelated, with none on the "primary" family (who owns or rents the housing) or on doubled-up households (DUHs) as a whole.

The study used 1983 and 1990 unpublished Current Population Survey data on all families (two or more related persons) sharing a household with another family (or occasionally, two other families). Census data were not used because the decennial Census does not count unrelated subfamilies (they are counted as individuals, but their relationship to each other is not recorded). Although unrelated families are a minority-most doubled-up families are related, to each other-they are the fastest-growing type of doubled-up family (DUFs) and should not be excluded. The beginning date of 1983 was chosen because in that year the Census Bureau first began to count certain types of households as doubled-up.

Doubling-up on the Rise

Over the 1980s, the number of doubled-up families increased to over 5 million, including 8.7 million children. Who was doubled-up changed as well over the decade: while the average doubled-up household held three adults and two children in the early 1980s, by 1990 the average doubled-up household had three children and two adults, and seven out of eight DUHs had children in them. Doubled-up households also shifted in location, with fewer in rural areas and more in metropolitan areas. Minority-led DUHs increased their concentration in the central city, while the white increase in DUHs was largely confined to the suburbs, thus adding to the racial polarization of many metropolitan areas. Women-maintained families were also concentrated in the central city, with five out of six DUHs having one or both families women-maintained.

The 1980s also saw racial and gender shifts, as Hispanics experienced the largest increase of any racial/ethnic group, and now account for one-sixth of DUHs. The proportion of doubled-up families maintained by women alone increased by one-third, so that in four out of five DUHs one or both families are woman-maintained. Black doubled-up families have the highest proportion of women-maintained households and families, and over half have both families maintained by women. In more than 90% of poor DUHs, one or both families are women-maintained and two-thirds of black and Hispanic DUHs are poor.

DUHs divide into two distinct types, distinguished by income, gender, race and the presence of children. The most prevalent type of DUH is low-income or poor, has several children, is disproportionately likely to be minority, and/ or concentrated in the central city. A second distinct type, however, is predominantly white, with one or both families consisting of a childless married couple, lives mostly in suburban areas, and is relatively affluent. This report concentrates on the first type, for when these two distinct types are averaged together, the result is misleading, blurring the picture of the phenomenon of doubling-up.

High rates of employment characterize DUFs. Overall, 80% of families and 90% of households receive wage and salary income, with earnings accounting for an average of 80% of income for DUFs. Despite their work efforts, poverty rates are very high: over 40% of DUFs have poverty-level incomes (compared to a poverty rate of 12% for all families). Low income is particularly characteristic of women-maintained secondary families, one-half of whom have annual incomes below $5000, and 70% below $10,000. (By comparison, 14% and 28%, respectively, of male householder secondary families have incomes this low). As a result, two-thirds of women-maintained secondary families-but only one-fourth of male-householder secondary families-are poor.

Poverty Status and Eligibility for Assistance

Low income also characterizes minority DUFs. While only 7% of white families have annual incomes less than $10,000, 50% of black and 40% of Hispanic DUFs have incomes this low. Not surprisingly, 50% of black and 40% of Hispanic doubled-up families are poor. The most disadvantaged are secondary families maintained by women of color, one-half of whom have incomes below one-half of the poverty threshold.

More than half of DUHs have at least one poor family in them, yet only one-fifth of DUHs are counted as poor by the Census Bureau. The low official poverty count occurs because Census officials do not look at related families separately, but consider them one single family or household for poverty determination purposes. Thus, a family's efforts to deal with poverty, by moving in with relatives or others, effectively hides that poverty from our view. Official poverty measures therefore miss about 2 million poor families per year because they are doubled-up.

The hidden poverty of DUFs does not just result in inaccurate statistics. Despite their very high poverty rates, very few DUHs secure any public help in meeting their basic needs. Only 15% receive income from welfare, and when they do, it accounts for less than half their income on average. Doubled-up households are equally unlikely to receive other types of benefits for low-income families: only one out of twenty doubled-up households receives any housing aid, and only 8% received any unemployment insurance benefits-and for those who do, it averaged a paltry 4% of total family income. The most common help received is food stamps, which one-fifth of households receive but again, it is only received for an average of two months of the year.

Many program eligibility requirements lock these families into long-term poverty. For example, for a family in a DUH to qualify separately for food stamps, they have to show that they shop, store, prepare and eat their food separately. Likewise, many other programs' eligibility requirements bar poor doubled-up families from getting the help they need to exit poverty, creating a Catch-22 situation. Without education, child care and job training, many of these family heads will not have the means to live on their own. If they try to live on their own without aid, they may well become homeless, or lose their children because they are unable to support them adequately.

One-fifth of DUFs are headed by a young mother, less than 25 years old, including 6% who are teens, but because eligibility standards are based on total household income, many are denied access to any public assistance, including teen parent programs. For some of these families, doubling-up may provide the kind of adult support needed by these young mothers (as has been advocated in a number of welfare reform proposals, including that put forth by the Clinton Administration), although at the same time impoverishing and placing stress on the, larger household. Since recent research has shown that the majority of teen mothers have been physically or sexually abused as children, many of these young women need access to services that will support their becoming self-sufficient out of their homes-but cannot get them because they are doubled-up.


The report makes recommendations for changes in four areas. Fast, it recommends that the Census Bureau collect full information on doubled-up families, in both annual CPS surveys and the decennial Census, and publish full information on both doubled-up families in a DUH as well as double-dup households as a whole.

Second, eligibility standards that bar poor families within doubled-up households from receiving any assistance should be modified.

Third, since the high rates of poverty are due to low earnings (rather than low participation in the labor force), expanded income and non-cash. benefit programs should be targeted to young single mother families. In particular, expanded ETC programs at the state level, and fuller participation in the federal ETC program, should be sought to alleviate these families' poverty. In-kind benefits, particularly subsidized child care, health care and access to education and training, should be provided to help these families become self-sufficient.

Finally, the report calls for a more flexible, geographically specific standard of need than that provided by the national poverty threshold measure. Already, a crude version of such a variable standard, in the form of area median income, is used to determine eligibility for housing assistance but not for other programs. Self-sufficiency standards provide such a measure, with need determined on the basis of local housing costs (using HUD's fair market rents), local child care costs (given age and number of children, using Family Support Act-determined market rate child care), as well as the costs of local health care, food and transportation. With locally-specific standards of need, true rates of poverty/ need can be determined, and eligibility for various types of public assistance can be determined on the basis of real need.

With welfare reform on the national agenda, the issue of doubling-up becomes more urgent. Whatever the end results of Congress' deliberations, two outcomes are nearly certain: states will have more flexibility and less money. Whether mandated by federal prohibitions or dictated by constrained budgets, the amount of assistance to poor families is likely to decrease. With less income, more families will be unable to make their rent, and will become homeless, or will double up. Since doubling up is quite often not a stable solution - half of families entering Washington, DC homeless shelters have come from a doubled-up situation-not dealing with the increase in doubling-up will end up creating greater housing instability and homelessness for increasing numbers of poor families. Not addressing housing problems at any level-whether affordability, doubling-up or homelessness-will simply slide us further down the slippery slope of leaving more and more families in distress, and more and more children and their parents experiencing lives of chaos and hopelessness without the help they need.

The results of this report have been used with welfare policymakers to coordinate housing and welfare initiatives as they impact on poor families, through the Ad Hoc Task Force on Housing/ Homeless Issues in Welfare Reform. As plans for the next Census develop, it will be used to advocate for better measures of family composition and poverty in the Year 2000 Census.

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