Sandy Butler, University of Maine and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine
originally published in The Bangor Daily News on March 28, 2014
Editor’s note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.edu or call 581-2382.
Wendall Hall is one of thousands of grandparents in Maine who find themselves as primary caregivers for their grandchildren, long after they thought their parenting years were over.
But Wendall, 55, has faced more difficult times than most, after the death of his wife and the loss of nearly all his income.
For most of his adult life, Wendall worked hard labor: roofing, siding and mechanical work. In the 1980s, he had an accident that left him with a broken collar bone and several damaged disks in his back. But he continued to work despite levels of increasing pain.
An inaccurate diagnosis perpetuated his inability to properly take care of the injury, worsening it over time. This meant that the labor he had done was no longer feasible. And because of his limited education level, alternate employment options were few and far between.
Together, Wendall and his wife raised three children and thought they were done with that phase of their life. But when their daughter was 17, she had a son. By Wendall’s account, she was just not ready to care for a baby.
After struggling to make it work, Wendall and his wife ultimately obtained legal guardianship of their grandson in 2006.
About 10 years ago, Wendall’s wife became quite ill with heart and lung disease. Eventually, he needed to stop working to care for her and the infant grandson who had recently come to live with them. He is no stranger to caregiving.
When Wendall had to stop working to care for his wife and grandson, the family income consisted of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) his wife received for her disability and a small Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) check for their grandson.
While they tried to get child support from the boy’s father, similar to many custodial caregivers, it never materialized. Their financial situation was always tight on the monthly income of less than $900, but they were getting by.
All that changed two years ago.
Wendall’s wife’s condition deteriorated, and she died in 2012. He became the sole caregiver for his grandson but had $700 less per month to live on, given the loss of his wife’s SSI benefits.
A few months later, the two were affected by the new state law disallowing families to receive TANF for more than five years, putting him among the 3,300 Maine families who have lost their TANF benefits since the law was implemented in June 2012.
He tried to get an extension of the benefits based on his disability and because he was caring for his grandchild. But his application was denied. For a full year, Wendall and his grandson lived without any income, save the food benefits they received through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The generosity of his landlord afforded them a place to live.
“He knew I had no money coming in. I couldn’t pay the rent, the power, water or sewer,” Wendall said.
He was very grateful. Otherwise, he has received no community support. The two went without electricity for three months.
“Thank God it was during the summer, and [he] didn’t have school,” Wendall said.
Poignantly, Wendall tells of other consequences of having no income, such as when his grandson offered to sell his toys to help make ends meet.
“And I did. And he cried for 10 minutes, but he said, ‘If it helps us, go ahead.’”
Wendall spoke glowingly of the casework services the family received from Wings for Children and Families, a social services agency based in Bangor. The caseworker not only helped his grandson, who was mourning his grandmother’s death, but assisted Wendall in gathering the medical documentation needed for his application for SSI.
He had applied eight years earlier but was unsuccessful, having been told he did not have adequate medical support. This time, he was successful and began receiving benefits about a year ago, one year after losing his TANF benefit.
He and his grandson live on $710 per month. While he appears eligible for a “child-only” TANF grant ($138 per month), so far, the Department of Health and Human Services has denied that to him.
Wendall continues to have a hard time making ends meet and adequately providing for his grandson.
“He needs his clothes, boots, winter things. You know that is not cheap. It is not cheap raising a 9-year-old. In fact, it is not cheap raising any kid,” he lamented.
While Wendall speaks with pleasure of caring for and raising his grandson, custodial grandparents like him face a wide array of stressors including financial pressures, their own increasing age-related concerns, strained relationships with birth parents, a “cultural divide” between themselves and the grandchildren they are raising, and in juggling the time to raise their grandchildren and work.
Wendall also must, as do many grandparents, sustain his own health, strength and energy to raise a young child while confronting his own array of aging-related stressors.
More grandparents than ever before are not only housing their grandchildren but raising them, often alone, without the child’s parents in the picture.
Recent estimates from AARP reveal that, nationally, more than 7.8 million children live in homes where household heads are grandparents.
In Maine, 2010 Census data show almost 17,000 children under age 18 — 6.2 percent of all children in the state — live in homes where grandparents or other relatives are the heads of household. More than 5,300 of these children — 30 percent — live in households where the grandparents are solely responsible for them, and more than 50 percent of these children have no parents present in the home.
Fourteen percent of the grandparent householders live in poverty.
Wendall had not planned to raise more children once his own were grown, saying “it was supposed to be our leisure years.” Nonetheless he is happy to be raising his grandson “except for all the money problems” and is proud of him. He describes his grandson as a joy and well mannered.
“We have fun together,” Wendall said with a smile.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.