01/09/2013 02:41 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

The New Middle Class Family

It's easy to forget that multigenerational households were once the rule, not the exception. The 1950s nuclear family was only possible because a thriving middle class and social safety net fostered newfound economic mobility. But the middle class has shrunk considerably in the last few decades, besieged by years of stagnant wages, rising debts and a growing concentration of wealth at the very top. It's clear that nuclear families no longer make sense for everybody. In fact, thanks to its compelling economic advantages, multigenerational families may become the new norm in today's post-recession economy.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau study shows that 4.3 million households now contain multiple generations -- a 13 percent increase from 3.8 million households in 2008.

Moving in with family cushions the blow of a job loss by giving newly laid-off workers valuable time to regroup. The unemployed have two options going forward: search for a new job, or undergo additional training. Both of these options can take a long time. Sharing a roof with family makes it easier to go back to school or pursue an internship without worrying about rent. Instead of scrambling to take a low-wage job to make ends meet, those living in multigenerational households can plan for the long-term and hold out for a wealth-building position that provides higher salaries, health insurance and a 401(k).

Living with more people also creates more financial savings. Paying for Internet, cable, heat and other utilities for one home eliminates duplicate bills in several different homes. Sharing mortgage and car payments among more people also greatly eases the financial burden for everyone. Living with family can also substantially cut down on domestic labor -- families living with elderly relatives save on nursing-home payments, while working mothers can cut child care costs. Household chores such as cooking, cleaning and maintenance work can be less time-consuming with more people around to help out.

Overall, moving in with relatives translates to tangible benefits: the multigenerational household poverty rate is substantially lower than that of other households. Moreover, a study by Pew shows that multigenerational living brings the greatest benefits for economically vulnerable groups disproportionately affected by the Great Recession -- blacks, Hispanics and young adults. Living with family has its own set of challenges, but its benefits may provide a lifeline for many members of the endangered middle class.

American Money is a weekly column written by Dedrick Muhammad, the senior director of the NAACP Economic Programs. To learn more about preventing foreclosure and personal finance, check out the NAACP Financial Freedom Center Facebook Page or on Twitter @naacpecon.