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Hope Harvey on Doubled-Up Households

  • Hope Harvey
  • December 06 2022
  • PC122-2022

Hope Harvey
Hope Harvey

In this episode, we hear from Hope Harvey about doubled-up households in the United States and why she thinks we should be paying more attention to the situations of people who are living in shared households. Professor Harvey is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Kentucky, where she is a research affiliate at the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research. She’s also a 2022-2023 IRP Visiting Poverty Scholar

In the episode, Professor Harvey discusses two papers:

Hope Harvey, Rachel Dunifon, and Natasha Pilkauskas. 2021. Under whose roof? Understanding the living arrangements of children in doubled-up households. Demography. ; 58(3): 821-846.

Hope Harvey. 2020. When Mothers Can’t “Pay the Cost to Be the Boss”: Roles and Identity within Doubled-up Households. Social Problems.

View Transcript

Dave Chancellor [00:00:03] Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode, I talked with Hope Harvey about doubled up households in the U.S. and why she thinks we should be paying more attention to the situations of people who are living doubled up. Professor Harvey is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Kentucky, where she is a research affiliate at the University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research. She’s also a 2022–23 IRP Visiting Poverty Scholar. So, let’s go to the interview.

Dave Chancellor [00:00:39] So, Professor Harvey, thanks so much for being here. And we’re talking today about households that are doubled up. And you’ve been studying the sort of implications and some of the things that have been going on with doubling up for a few years now. And so, first off, what is doubling up and why is this something that you’ve been concerned about?

Hope Harvey [00:01:00] Yeah. So, the definition of doubled up households that I use is a household that includes any adult besides the householder and the householder’s romantic partner. So, these are also known as shared households. So, for families with children, the group that I study this most often involves a grandparent living with a parent or parents and child. But it can be a household with really any member beyond what we think of as that nuclear family unit. So, a parent, parents, romantic partner, and minor children. So, this definition is commonly used by demographers. It’s one that’s been used by HUD and the Census Bureau. But I should note that it’s an inclusive definition. So, there is some important work being done on double tap homelessness, which involves sort of a subset of this population that I’m interested in. But in my research, I use this broader definition, which includes some families we might think of as homeless, but also many who are not. And then the other thing I’ll say is this definition encompasses two groups. So, families who are doubled up as what I call guests, meaning they’re living in someone else’s homes, and then families who are doubled up as hosts, meaning they rent or own a home of their own and they’re sharing with another adult or family.

Dave Chancellor [00:02:11] And can you tell me how you started to become interested in this?

Hope Harvey [00:02:14] So I really got interested in this population when I was in my first year of grad school. I was doing fieldwork in Cleveland interviewing families with children about how they make residential decisions. I was doing it as part of this large-scale qualitative study called How Parents House Kids, which was led by Kathryn Edin and Stefanie DeLuca. So, as I spoke with parents about their residential history and how they chose their unit neighborhood, I kept coming across these families for whom the questions just didn’t really fit. So, a mother who didn’t choose her unit or neighborhood, she chose to move in with her cousin because she wasn’t happy in her mother’s home where she lived before another mother who never moved. She remained in her childhood home into adulthood and was raising her own kids there. So, I became intrigued by these cases and how common they were. So, I started looking into the research and I discovered that they’re actually really common nationally. So, in my work, I found that as of 2018, over 15% of kids lived with a parent in a double up household. And of course, there are reasons to suspect that the share has increased with the pandemic. So, this inspired me to continue doing fieldwork with these doubled up families with children, and I continued doing qualitative interviews with the families that I interviewed and identified through that project. But then as I worked in this area, I really quickly learned that there were so many open questions about doubling up, many of which just couldn’t be answered with my qualitative data. So, I’ve completed a lot of quantitative work in this area as well.

Dave Chancellor [00:03:40] So I know that in some parts of the world, multigenerational households, you know, people living with grandparents is very common and it’s sort of a desirable or a long-term arrangement. And it seems like that’s less the case in the United States. Even if it’s common, it’s maybe not ideal as much. Is that right or how do you see that?

Hope Harvey [00:04:00] Yeah. Yeah, I would say so. So, and a recent paper that I wrote with Natasha Pilkauskas and Rachel Dunifon, we looked at the duration of doubled of residents over just a pretty short three-year period for children in the U.S. using nationally representative data from the CEP, the survey of income and program participation. And what we found was that just 45% of kids who live doubled up as guests remained so over this three-year period. And just a quarter of kids who doubled up as hosts remained hosting over this three-year period. So even over this fairly brief time frame, there’s a lot of instability. And the instability that these households have contributes quite a bit of instability to children’s lives. And so, a lot of other researchers like Kristen Perkins and Kelly really have done really interesting work in that area.

Dave Chancellor [00:04:50] And you’ve done some qualitative work talking to families about why they double up and what did you find?

Hope Harvey [00:04:57] So for the guest families I met who were living in someone else’s home, they had three main motivations for initially doubling up. Now I say initially because many families moved from one up household to another, right. But the most common reason that they initially doubled up was in response to a crisis. So that’s typically housing crisis, but sometimes a romantic relationship crisis, a breakup separation and evictions were definitely part of this and one that a lot of people know of. But there are a lot of other crises. For example, the mother who needed to leave her home after a jealous ex-boyfriend drew a brick through her window. She was afraid of what would happen to her and her kids next. And so, for parents like this, doubling up is often a temporary strategy where they try to save and find for another and try to find another home. And then another subset of parents who had never lived independently. So, they might have remained in their parents’ home or moved from one household to the other, sort of always relying on other people for housing. And some of these parents would have struggled to afford any home. But others were just dissatisfied with the unit and neighborhood options that they had given pretty limited income levels. So, these parents aspire to have a home of their own. They see doubling up as temporary. But this limited supply of desirable, affordable housing in the U.S. really constricts that ambition. And then finally, the smallest group of parents doubled up as part of what I call a deliberate decision to gain sort of needed support that would help them achieve a goal. So, for example, one mother in my study worked her way up in a factory to the point where she felt like she might be able to actually achieve this lifelong dream she had of homeownership. But of course, rent took up so much of her income that she knew she was never going to be able to save enough to buy a house if she kept paying rent. So, she doubled up temporarily to reduce her housing costs while she saved for that homeownership goal. So that’s guess reasons for doubling up. The host families I met typically described doubling up as a way of providing support to the people they housed, like those families that I just described. And most of the people that they house were experiencing these housing or relationship crises or were moving from one doubled up household into the host households and host parents. A lot of households were typically, although not always, formed in response to guest needs. But it’s important to say that that doesn’t mean that hosts any benefit from these arrangements as well. So many hosts were economically precarious. They received economic support from their guests. Support that at the extreme could help them avoid falling behind on rent or utilities. And then many hosts receive childcare help from guests as well. But since they provided housing hosts for themselves as primarily support providers and the support that they provided was typically intended to be temporary. There were definitely some exceptions there, particularly when they were hosting older adults like an aging parent.

Dave Chancellor [00:07:48] You mentioned at this paper it was Demography actually right, with Rachel Dunifon and Natasha Pilkauskas. And one of the things that I thought was really interesting about this paper was that in the introduction, you and your coauthors, you talked about how there’s been more scholarly attention to complex families. Right. And I mean, I guess really broadly, I’ll define that as like families where not all the children share two parents. But you say that there’s a growing argument and one that you’re making that we should be paying more attention to household complexity as well. I mean, you’ve kind of given us a sense of what this looks like. But, you know, can you tell us about what this is about and maybe how you’re connecting those concepts?

Hope Harvey [00:08:30] Yeah, definitely. So, as you mentioned, sociologists and demographers are really increasingly attentive to this family complexity introduced by parents’ romantic partners. So, this research considers how complex family arrangements, those nonresident step social parents and siblings can put families at risk of things like social instability, economic insecurity. But this focus on what we might think of as the nuclear family unit, that parent, romantic partner, or mother child unit just doesn’t reflect the full household experience of just so many families today, particularly black, Hispanic, and Latino, Asian, and Native American families, lower income families, unmarried parent families. All of these groups disproportionately live with extended family or non-relatives. And we’re really missing a key part of their households. So just as an example, nearly a third of children whose mother has never married live in a doubled-up household. So, to understand these children’s lives, we really need to understand the dynamics of not just that child’s nuclear family unit, but really of their whole household. So, the role of all adults in the household finances and childbearing, the household composition, the cars and so on.

Dave Chancellor [00:09:41] Kind of at the outset, you talked a little bit how you make distinctions between guests and hosts, and you think that’s really important and maybe it’s obvious, but like. Why? Why are you making those distinctions?

Hope Harvey [00:09:52] Yeah. Yeah. So, it’s a great question because a lot of research in demography has examined shared or doubled up households sort of as a single category grouping families who are guests living in someone else’s home with those who are hosts, who are living in a home that they own or rent but sharing with additional adults or families. So, distinguishing between these two groups, I find, is really critical because as I discussed previously, need often leads families to double up as guests, whereas hosts often see themselves as support providers. So, they have these different motivations for doubling up, but they also experience the households differently. So, for example, hosts typically retain authority within the home. At the extreme, they can threaten to evict guests who don’t adhere to their rules, while guests typically experience a loss of control from moving into someone else’s home. But at the same time, the research that we have about double of households that does distinguish them often just focuses on guests. But I think it’s really important to incorporate hosts into this conversation as well. Fully half of double of families with children live in shared households because they’re hosting an additional double in their home. And these households invest their lives in both helpful and challenging ways. So, as I mentioned, hosts often received some kind of support from those they house childcare payments towards rent and then the challenges hosting comes at a cost. So, for example, for hosts with low incomes, sharing their housing with other adults can be financially risky, particularly if those other adults don’t always contribute to housing expenses like the host expected and host like guests face challenges navigating how to share that really intimate household space and navigate these co resident relationships with people outside of their nuclear family unit.

Dave Chancellor [00:11:38] In the demography article we’ve been talking about, you looked at a number of different doublings up setups and situations. So, can you go over some of what you looked at and what you found?

Hope Harvey [00:11:48] Yeah, definitely. So, in that work, we were drawing on nationally representative data from the CIB and we found that most kids who lived doubled up as guests live in multigenerational households with a grandparent, but some live with other extended family or a no grandparent. About 13% in just a small portion live with non-relatives only. And we find that children are especially likely to live in multigenerational households as guests when they’re very young. So over 10% of kids in their first year of life live in a grandparent’s household. Pretty striking, especially compared to the fact that just 3% do by age 17. And then, as I mentioned, about half of kids who are doubled up live double up as hosts. So, children who lived double up as hosts, most commonly live with a grandparent as well. But over half of kids whose family hosts live in a household without a grandparent, they’re hosting other extended family members or non-relatives. And we don’t see the same age patterning for hosting that we do for a doubling up as a guest. So, families have very similar rates of hosting grandparents, other extended family, and non-relatives across child ages.

Dave Chancellor [00:12:55] And you picked up on some differences by racial and ethnic group. There are different patterns that you saw, right?

Hope Harvey [00:13:03] Yeah. So, we saw different patterns in the in the types of households that we saw. So particularly engagement families were more likely to be doubled up as the host, whereas black families were more likely to be double up as guests. And white and Hispanic families were about equally likely to be doubled up as hosts and guests. And then we also saw some sort of differences in the types of households that children lived in. So, for example, black families, black children were particularly likely to be doubled up as guests in multigenerational households, while Asian children were particularly likely to be doubled up as hosts and multigenerational households. So, what doubling up looks like seems to really vary according to race and ethnicity.

Dave Chancellor [00:13:49] You’ve done a number of interviews and you’ve got another paper out where you looked at the experiences of mothers and how their housing arrangements can kind of get tied up in their identities, both as moms and adults. And, you know, as you’re beginning to think about this, you know, what are some of these questions that you were asking?

Hope Harvey [00:14:07] Yeah. So, my qualitative data collection process was really designed to have mothers sort of tell me what was important to them and what they experienced in these households. So, they were very much the experts, and I was just there to learn from them about what it was like to live in these households. And I really wanted to be open to unexpected findings because I think that’s one of the main strengths of qualitative data collection. So, the fact that mothers’ identities were threatened by their housing arrangement, the main findings from that paper really came from the mothers themselves. So, my thinking on this topic when I enter fieldwork was mostly guided by research that didn’t distinguish between hosts and guests like a lot of the demographic literature. But I really quickly found out that that’s not how mothers experience these households, and that host guest status was really central to how they interpreted these arrangements. So, I found that mothers, for the most part, had really internalized this cultural norm that adults and families have a home of their own, and this cultural context made doubling up as a guest challenging for mothers because it threatened their identities as both adults and good parents. They didn’t identities that are really closely connected. So, relying on others for housing challenged their identities as independent adults who could provide for themselves. And as scholars like Linda Burton have shown, household status conveys a sense of authority over the home. So, mothers who were living in someone else’s home felt this mismatch between their identities as adults and the loss of control that they experienced because they were living in someone else’s home, often under someone else’s walls. So, for example, one guest mother described how her host tried to set a curfew for her to prevent coming and going late at night from the house. And the guest felt like she was being treated like a child. She said, likewise, mothers stop providing a home of their own to their children and setting an example of independence for their children as an important part of good parenting. So, they also wanted to have complete authority over childbearing. But of course, when living doubled up, other household members got involved, other household members set rules, punish children, interfered with, and overruled their parenting decisions. They encroached on mothers’ parental roles in a lot of different ways. So, for example, one mother described how a friend that she was living with was overly harsh with her children. But the mother didn’t feel like she could say anything because she was staying at the friend’s home. So, the blowing up threatened against mothers’ identities as adults and good parents. But hosts had a home of their own. They weren’t relying on others for housing. They didn’t experience that same identity threat. Now, hosts experienced a lot of similar challenges. It’s difficult to navigate different lifestyles, different childbearing beliefs from guests. But unlike guests, they were able to invoke this authority as a householder and those disagreements, which was an important difference.

Dave Chancellor [00:16:58] So, I mean, you talk to me about some of the things that you heard when talking to these moms, but what are some of the takeaways that you got from them? Were some of the ways that you sort of interpreted what they said?

Hope Harvey [00:17:09] Yeah, that’s a good question. So, I think that one of my main takeaways from these conversations and my conversations with a lot of parents is just what a broad safety net doubling up provides. So, it helps low-income gas families avoid homelessness. It helps middle income families make progress towards their goals, like homeownership, further education. It provides housing support for guests but hosts often benefit as well. They’ve received this needed economic support. They receive childcare. So, it’s really providing this much broader safety net than what we typically think of. But on the flipside of that is that doubling up is not only this incredibly important form of support, it’s also just not a perfect solution for families’ needs. So, doubling up often increases day to day uncertainty. It limits parents’ abilities to enact their ideals of family life. So, as I said, double of households. Have you taken for granted norms guiding household functioning, which leaves household members sort of left to resolve basic questions about daily life themselves? What role should nonprofit adults play in their children’s lives? How should they share or debate income and expenses? So, these questions are challenging enough, but it’s made even more difficult, by the way, that living doubled up contradicts the ideals of family life that many of these parents hold. They hold ideals that are based around this independent nuclear family household consisting of a parent, children, and maybe a parent’s romantic partner. So, the complicated household dynamics that doubling up introduces can really foster conflict, stress, and uncertainty. And these challenges, along with the straightforward challenges of sharing often limited space, contribute to the instability of these households. So overall, I just see doubling up as this really critical private safety net, but also one that provides a really imperfect and insufficient solution to families’ needs.

Dave Chancellor [00:19:07] I want to think more about doubled up housing when it comes to public policy issues. And I could be wrong about this, but to me it seems like the first bulk of this research on public housing, it seemed to grow out of the housing crisis of the late 2000 and the Great Recession. There seemed to be kind of a lot of it around there. And so, I guess I’m just wondering, do you see this as something that’s a result of sort of a narrow sort of economic factors? Or is this something that’s increasing? Do we have a sense of that? Or is this, you know, sort of, you know, in relation to the complex families, is this cultural shift that we’re seeing at all? I mean, how do you how do you think about these things?

Hope Harvey [00:19:48] Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. So, I can definitely say that there has been an increase and the paper with Natasha Pilkauskas and Rachel Dunifon, we find that doubling up has increased at least since 1996 through 2018. And particularly the increases have been driven in multigenerational households, including those in which the parent is the host, but also those in which the grandparent is the host. So, I’d really like to do more research on what’s driving this growth and the future, and I think that that’s really an open question. That said, I do think that I have two main points that are important for policymakers at this point, regardless of what’s driving the increase. So, the first would be that based on my qualitative fieldwork with families, with children who have it seems that doubling up in large part reflects the immense precarity that lower- and middle-income families face today and the broad reach of high housing costs. So, from lower income families who struggle to keep a roof over their head to these more middle-income families who are just desperate to achieve their goals of homeownership, these high housing costs and economic precarity more generally are leading a really large share of families to rely on this private safety net, the doubling up can provide. But as I mentioned, the safety net comes at a cost both for guests, families and for the host who holds them. So, my first takeaway is really about how the lack of sufficient public support for these things has shifted the burden to the private safety net and at a cost for both support providers and recipients. And then my second policy takeaway is sort of how important understanding of household dynamics is for effective policymaking going into the future. So, families with children are applying for a means tested benefits. They’re attending public schools; they’re interacting with service agencies and programs across all of these domains. And these families are just increasingly likely to live in a complex household, in a household. So, for example, understanding the parenting dynamics of double of households, how parents often have to struggle to maintain parental authority and to set rules and routines for their children. That’s important for schools who serve to build up children, understanding the importance of the household or role, whose name is on the lease and the household and the authority that typically comes with that is important for understanding why a subsidy housing subsidy recipient might hesitate to add gas to their lease, even if they want to provide them housing. So overall, doubling up just shapes household life across so many spheres, from economic resources to child rearing. My takeaway is just that policies and interventions need to be aware of this and if they assume a non-shared household and overlook the complexity that’s introduced by doubling up, they’re really unlikely to be able to effectively serve this large population.

Dave Chancellor [00:22:39] Professor Harvey, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate you talking about this work with us.

Hope Harvey [00:22:44] Yeah. Thank you so much, this was great.

Dave Chancellor [00:22:46] Thanks again to Professor Harvey for taking the time to talk to us. We have links to the two papers we talked about in this episode in the show notes. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office. Any other agency of the Federal Government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the Episode by Martin DeBoer. Thanks for listening.


Children, Children General, Eviction & Foreclosure, Family & Partnering, Family Structure, Homelessness, Housing, Inequality & Mobility, Inequality & Mobility General