Helping 2 generations at once

Published May 8, 2014 at 12:01AM

For 50 years, the government has fought the War on Poverty with programs typically focused on either helping children get off to a good start, or helping parents get better education and training for better jobs.

That approach has had limited success: Nearly one in five children still live in poverty, the majority with a single mother. Women experience poverty at a rate 38 percent higher than men, the steepest gap of any advanced economy, one study found. The chasm between rich and poor has never been greater. And nearly 70 percent of those who are born into poverty remain poor for the rest of their lives.

So advocates are beginning to embrace something new: Anti-poverty programs that focus on parents and children at the same time. In other words, a “Two Generation” approach that calls for high quality child care centers that not only require parent involvement, like many Head Start programs, but also offer community college training programs to become certified nursing assistants, for example, or to earn credentials for other stable professions to boost family income.

Community colleges, where more than one-quarter of all students now are parents and 16 percent are single parents, are providing not only on-site child care facilities, but student housing that supports dual- and, in particular, single-parent families. Job training programs that actually provide child care, not just referrals to care elsewhere.

“It sounds really obvious, and someone could say, ‘Our grandmothers could have told us that,’” said P. Lindsay Chase Lansdale, a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University who is researching the two-generation approach and whose work is featured in a new report released by the Brookings Institution on Wednesday. It also is included in a recent report by Ascend, an arm of the Aspen Institute. “We have a history of having tried some of this before, but not with this intensity on both the adult and the child side. So it’s actually a big deal to bring them together.”

Lansdale calls it “Two Generation 2.0.”

At the heart of these evolving two-generation strategies is a growing body of research that shows high quality early childhood education — the current focus of the Obama administration, business and military groups and philanthropists — is simply not enough to lift a child out of poverty.

“It’s not reasonable for the child to be the only change-agent in a family that’s facing economic hardship,” Chase Lansdale said. “We have so much good evidence now about the positive impact of high quality early childhood education. However, those gains may not be enough if a child is coming home to a family with great hopes, but is stressed by making ends meet, working multiple jobs, looking for work or facing food insecurity.”

The new Brookings report on two-generation strategies highlights how the stress associated with living in poverty can damage not only the physical, but the psychological health and cognitive functioning of both parents and children, and how two-generation programs have helped both parents and young children learn to better regulate their emotions, curb distraction and disruptions, make better decisions and, for children, raise their academic achievement.

“This approach is absolutely the wave of the future,” said Cybele Raver, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, who conducts randomized controlled trials to test the effectiveness of two-generation strategies. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have the extraordinary research that we do now. The research has really been a turning point.”

For instance, new research shows that for families with very young children earning $25,000 a year, boosting family income by $3,000 can yield a 17 percent increase in earnings for these young children when they become adults.

“We’re trying to build on what we know works,” said Anne Mosle, executive director at Ascend. “And there’s good evidence that when you invest in both parents and children together, there are, immediately, better outcomes in terms of stability for families, and down the road, better outcomes in health, achievement and connection to community.”

Mosle said a sense of frustration with current anti-poverty approaches and urgency with growing income inequality is driving the embrace of two-generation strategies.

Ascend recently invested $1.2 million in 57 organizations across the country working on two-generation approaches to disrupting inter-generational cycles of poverty.

Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit aimed at helping immigrants, is one. It is expanding a “Learning Together” program that now aims to educate parents so that they can help educate their children.

Other programs in the pilot projects Ascend has supported include the Jeremiah Program in St. Paul, Fargo and Austin, which offers both high quality early childhood education for low-income children and gives single mothers a place to live, life skills training and support for college-track continuing education.

A network of four-year colleges offers housing and educational support for both single parents and their children, including Berea College in Kentucky. Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., reported a 100 percent graduation rate among single parents in their Keys to Degrees program.

And while 33 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of school last year in Texas, the dropout rate was far lower, 10 percent, for students in the AVANCE Parent-Child Education Program that targets both a child’s academic success and offers support to parents.