We have shown that kinship caregiving is not an unique or isolated social phenomenon, but rather that it pervades of all sectors of society. While the case of each specific child carries its own human story, the processes that bring children into kinship care arrangements are embedded in the much broader context and overall patterns of American family life. The term "breakdown" is probably premature, but the primacy of the traditional two-parent family has declined significantly over the past several decades-- through increases in both family non-formation and family dissolution. At the aggregate level, a strong positive relationship between the prevalence of children living in the care of relatives and the prevalence of children living in single-mother families extends across all regions of the nation. Both caregiving types appear as symptoms of, and adaptations to, family disruption. Interestingly, the prevalence of other adaptations of the traditional family form, such as single-father families and children living with non-relative caregivers, do not vary in a similar systematic way, but rather seem to result from an independent set of processes.
Children in kinship care and their related adult caregivers differ from the general population in many ways -- some of which we could demonstrate with available data. The population of children in kinship care is over-representative of children of color, even while the numerical majority of them are white. Older children are more likely to live within kinship care arrangements than are younger children. The adult kinship care providers are older than parental caregivers (about two-thirds are grandparents). They are also much more likely to be poorly educated, outside of the labor force, below or near the poverty level, and recipients from public programs than are parental caregivers. In the aggregate, the persons who are caring for their related children are an economically and socially marginal class or subgroup, without access to many personal resources or to the means to bring influence to bear on behalf of themselves or the children in their care.
When we turn to investigating the relation between the formal and informal kinship care groups, the picture becomes somewhat more vague. In part, this is because the comparisons were made on scanty information and in only four states (CA, IL, MO, NY). The clearest observation was that, while informal kinship arrangements appear to operate in a similar fashion in each of these four states, the utilization of formal kinship foster care varies widely. The state with the highest incidence of formal kinship care in 1990 (New York) had a rate over ten times as large as the state with the lowest incidence (Missouri). In New York and Missouri, kinship foster care arrangements existed almost exclusively in the primary urban county, and California was the only state where there was substantial use of kinship foster care outside of the central urban place. These results suggest that while informal kinship is an adaptive response to general social conditions, formal kinship is far more a creation of local policy, agency practice, and conditions that affect the administrative operation of governments.(25).
We do see some differences between the children cared for in formal and informal kinship arrangements. Even where formal kinship is common, the informal kinship care population is still much larger. Among formal kinship cases, it is the younger kin-care children -- children under the age of five years -- that are more likely to enter the foster care system, doing so at almost twice the level of older children. In contrast, older children are far more likely to be in informal kinship arrangements than are the younger children. African-American children are disproportionally likely to be cared for in both formal and informal kinship arrangements, but only formal kinship care is also a disproportionally urban phenomenon. The modal attributes of children in formal kinship care -- being very young, African-American, and highly urban -- combine to produce a highly visible and compelling group. The modal child in informal care -- being white, older, and non-metropolitan -- is less likely to draw public attention.
All of the relations, trends, and processes described above merit close observation in the near future. The potential influence of changes in our welfare system under TANF has led to much conjecture about the future role of kinship care (both formal and informal) as current program recipients exceed their time-limits or are sanctioned from further receipt for other reasons. Many technical issues, such as whether the new rules should even apply to relative caregivers, and whether time-limits should be measured for child recipients as well as for the adult grantees, are actively being debated in state capitals around the nation. Most analysts agree that fundamental shifts in the welfare system can be expected to change the current order, yet we are unsure as to how this will occur. One possibility is a rapid increase in kinship caregiving as some mothers lose access to the public transfer payments that currently support their households. Another possibility is a gradual shift towards the involvement of more fathers in what had been single-mother households. Our almost total inability to anticipate consequences is reflected in the fact that we do not yet know how to define the rules.