America’s grandparents have handed over more than $370 billion to grandchildren within the last five years. And as the economy gets worse, they feel even more compelled to help.

The MetLife Mature Market Institute’s “2009 Grandparents Poll” of adults age 45 and older with a grandchild under the age of 25 reveals these grandmas and grandpas prefer to give money while they’re still alive, rather than leaving a lump sum in a will to their grandchildren. Most (83 percent) are giving cash, and the average amount is $8,661. Forty percent are giving money for general purposes and 26 percent intend for their grandchildren to use it for education.

The survey shows grandparents are particularly generous lately, as those with less income and a lower net worth are giving a higher percentage than they did before the economic downturn. But that generosity comes at a price, according to the survey; One in five reports it’s had a negative impact on their “financial picture.”

“The survey points to the universal bond between grandparents and their grandchildren, and the generous nature of grandparents, regardless of asset and income levels,” said Sandra Timmermann, Ed.D, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. “Grandparents are more willing than ever to help their grandchildren, even though they may be suffering economically. While they clearly want to make sure their grandchildren are financially secure, only a small percentage of those polled said they have talked to their grandchildren about the importance of hard work, saving for a rainy day and intelligent use of credit.”