In 1978, Congress passed legislation proclaiming the first Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day. Presidents since Jimmy Carter have issued proclamations urging citizens to, in the words of President Barack Obama, "honor those who have helped shape the character of our nation, and thank these role models for their immeasurable acts of love, care and understanding."
At a stage in life when many people are already comfortably retired, some 2.7 million grandparents have taken on the responsibility of providing basic needs for their grandchildren, according to data compiled by Generations United. An alarming 21 percent of these vital caregivers live below the poverty line, even though 60 percent are still in the workforce.
All told, an estimated 7.8 million children under 18 live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives, including those whose parents are absent due to death, substance abuse, military deployment or other reasons.
Ironically, even though many of these "grandfamilies" barely scrape by, they save taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year by keeping children out of the foster care system.
So it only seems fair that many federal, state and local aid programs are available to help these guardian angels provide financial and emotional safety nets for their grandchildren.
Among the many difficulties these families sometimes face:
* If you become your grandchild's foster parent, you're responsible for day-to-day decisions and care, although the state retains legal custody and pays for the child's care.
* Unless you establish some form of legal relationship (custody, guardianship or adoption), the parent may be able to take your grandchild from your home at any time.
* In some states, it's difficult to enroll the child in school or get medical care without some form of legal relationship.
* Most senior-only housing complexes don't allow child residents - which is legal - so some grandfamilies are forced to move.
However, grandfamilies may be eligible for several federal tax credits:
* A Child Tax Credit of up to $1,000 for each qualified grandchild, provided they lived with you for more than half the filing year and are under 17 at year's end.
* If you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, you may be eligible for an additional amount for grandchildren you support.
* A Child and Dependent Care Credit for childcare expenses incurred so you can work or seek employment.
* If you adopt your grandchildren, you may be eligible for a nonrefundable Federal Adoption Credit of up to $12,970 per child.
In addition, depending on your income and the health/disability status of your grandchildren, you may also be eligible for benefits from Medicaid, your state's Children's Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and numerous other federal, state and local aid programs.
Helpful resources for grandfamilies include:
* Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a government-sponsored site at. www.usa.gov, that provides links to various subject-matter experts.
* AARP's comprehensive GrandFamilies Guide (at www.aarp.org).
* Benefits QuickLINK, an AARP tool to find out whether you or your grandchildren qualify for 15 different public benefits.
* GrandFacts, a searchable database at www.aarp.org, where you can locate key state and local resources, foster care policies and services, public benefits, financial and education assistance, and relevant state laws.
* Generations United, whose "Grandfamilies" website highlights challenges often faced by these households (www.gu.org/OURWORK/Grandfamilies.aspx).
Do something to honor your own grandparents this Grandparents Day. And if you know others who are raising their grandkids, make sure they know about the many available resources.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs.