Moving Parents and Children out of Poverty: a Two-Generation Approach

BlogFamiliesMar 24 2015

Let’s start out with a success story, as told by United Way of Central Indiana. Tiffany is a single mother living in Indiana. Before receiving assistance Tiffany was unemployed and experiencing severe depression which was further complicated by the threat of losing her home and difficulties her children were experiencing in school. She was then visited by a case manager from a local social service agency, supported by the United Way. Tiffany enrolled in a family stability program which promotes housing and school stability for vulnerable families with children enrolled at local elementary schools. Within six months she was able to ensure her home would pass HUD inspection. The agency also provided scholarships so her children could attend a five week summer camp focused on academic enrichment and character development. Tiffany was provided with job training, and this has resulted in promising employment prospects. As of last fall she was interning in the front office of the agency that assisted her.

By focusing jointly on the development of both Tiffany and her children, this agency engages families using a two-generation approach. This approach has elicited growing interest in policy, research, and practice arenas within the past few years.

What is a two-generation approach to assisting families? Whereas many programs tend to arrange parent-oriented and child-oriented programs into separate silos, two-generation programs and policies seek to engage families in ways that knit together these services and address both groups simultaneously. The idea behind the framework is that when opportunities for children and parents are approached jointly, the benefits may be greater than the sum of the separate parts. Policy and research groups that have produced work on this approach in the past two years include ASCEND at the Aspen Institute, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Center for Law & Social Policy, and the National Human Services Assembly.

This approach often promotes joining together two types of programs to serve families. One type includes early childhood development programs such as home visiting, Head Start/Early Head Start, and successful transition to elementary school. At the same time the approach attempts to link these efforts to services such as postsecondary education and workforce development that focus on parents in their role as breadwinners. By promoting early education and supports for children along with tools to improve parents’ economic situation, the two-generation approach expects that outcomes for both will improve.

Why the growing interest in a two-generation approach to serving families, particularly single mothers and their children? One reason is related to demographic and labor changes in the past several decades. The number of married families with children is declining and the number of families with children that are headed by single mothers has risen steadily over the past decade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single-parent families in 2014, more than 80 percent were headed by single mothers. And women and children in single-mother families have disproportionately high rates of poverty. Nearly three-fourths of children living in single-mother families are low-income. Another reason is a shift in the economic landscape of working mothers.  Over the past four years the number of low-wage jobs in which single mothers tend to work has continued to increase. Likewise, since the end of the 2008 recession, job recovery growth in the lower-wage sector has been more significant than that of mid-range and higher-wage occupations. The nature of these jobs, including the lack of paid leave, poses significant challenges for parenting and children’s development.

Two-generation approaches also build on a core tenet of child development research findings, namely that parents are critical to children’s healthy development. The first few years of a child’s life are crucial in order to ensure their healthy development, and children need stability as well as responsive and nurturing relationships. Thus, parenting has a strong effect on children’s development. Parental stress—particularly that caused by poverty—can affect children’s learning and development.

Children can also affect parents’ ability to succeed. When children are sick or having difficulties at school or other problems, parents working in jobs without paid leave may not be able to fully attend to them without compromising their employment. Also, unpredictable work schedules can cause parents to rely on unstable child care arrangements.

Though more research is needed, there is some evidence that a two-generation approach can disrupt the cycle of poverty for families. For example, home-visiting programs such as Early Head Start, Healthy Families America, and Nurse Family Partnership have been shown to have positive impacts on family self-sufficiency as well as child development outcomes. Additionally, data from the Career Advance program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, suggest important ways in which mothers who return to school are motivated by and for their children. The study found that these mothers become more involved with their children’s learning and homework as a result of their own participation in postsecondary education. Given high rates of child poverty, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers should continue to explore the benefits of this promising approach to moving families out of poverty and into a brighter future.