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The new War on Poverty: Tackling two generations at once

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For 50 years, the government has fought the War on Poverty with programs have 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 being 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. Not when a child leaves that high quality program and may return home to the high stress that economic insecurity, chaos and a lack of parental education can create.

“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, James Heckman, a Nobel-prize winning economist, has found that investing in quality early childhood education can have a return for low-income children of 7 to 10 percent in greater academic achievement, better jobs, higher incomes, reduced incarceration rates and lower health care costs.

At the same time, 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. Casa’s plan is to include parent education and vocational training at local colleges. “Research has demonstrated so clearly that the educational level of the parent really impacts the success of the child,” said Casa’s Eliza Leighton.

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.

Chase Lansdale, of Northwestern University, has been researching a two-generation project in Tulsa, Okla., called CareerAdvance that combines high-quality early childhood education and, at the same time, a free community-college-based education for parents designed to help them get better jobs and become financially independent.

The program is designed specifically for parents to become certified nursing assistants, and ultimately registered nurses. The parents are grouped in “cohorts” of about 15 that serve as support networks. Each cohort has a coach. The parents learn financial skills such as budgeting and tax filing, resumé writing and interview skills, as well as parenting education. And everyone who sticks with the program earns cash bonuses that equal the $3,000 yearly boost that research has shown is realized in the children’s future earnings.

Of the 203 parents who’ve started the education program in the last four years while their children were in Head Start, the recent Ascend report said there was a completion rate of 92 percent.

The idea that Chase Lansdale is studying is the power of “mutual motivation.”

“The children are excited to go to school. The parents are very excited themselves. They have a goal. They have structure. Both parents and children can come home and talk about school. The parents have a white lab coat on. They become role models. They both have a sense of hope,” “Chase Lansdale said. “They’re trying to harness the parents’ motivation for their children to have better lives, and funnel that back into their own motivation to better their own lives.”

Steven Dow, director of the program, is cautious. While there has been success for the more motivated and educated parents, poverty is an enormously complex problem, and there are others who are difficult to reach or have farther to go to learn basic skills. “We are continuing to build an evidence base for what kinds of things have the biggest impact,” he said. “What does the data say? At this point, we don’t know.”

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children & Families at Brookings, also said it’s too early to tell if the strategy can make a difference in ending poverty and inequality.

“The two-generation approach is growing and there’s some promise,” he said. “But these are difficult issues. Whether it proves to be effective has yet to be shown.”

Still, Keilula Hennings, 28, and a single mother of three, said the program is working for her family. A few years ago, she said she felt overwhelmed and depressed about her low-wage job, her reliance on public assistance and what she saw as her dim future prospects.

But when she enrolled her children in preschool, she decided to enroll herself in the CareerAdvance program. She has since completed her medical assistant certification and is currently attending Tulsa Community College for an associate degree in health information technology.

“I used to joke that I always wanted an office in a high rise overlooking the city,” said Hennings. “And now I actually see that happening.”