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How 2-Gen Strategies May Help Break the Cycle of Poverty

It is common for children to mimic their parents from birth, developing from imitated facial gestures into adopted behaviors and mindsets. But for children who grow up in low-income families, this common interaction may be detrimental to their future success. A recent story in The Washington Post provides a grim exploration of how intergenerational cycles of poverty affect the American Dream, comparing America’s socio-economic ladder with a meritocratic system.

Research has documented the impact of a parent’s education, economic stability, and overall health on a child’s trajectory. The Washington Post study confirms this: Compared with their wealthy counterparts who obtain only a high school diploma, low-income children have lower odds of personal economic growth, even with a college degree. That’s because just as children are motivated by their parents’ success, they catalyze their parents’ desires for educational advancement and economic stability--so kids with low-income parents tend not to pursue higher-income jobs as often. Without opportunities to benefit both the parent and child, as to form a symbiotic relationship between the two, the cycle of poverty will remain continuous within low-income families.

To change this pattern, policies should focus heavily on early interventions that will benefit entire low-income families. The War on Poverty has made pivotal strides toward providing low-income families with opportunities for advancement. However, the fifty-year-old legislation and policies are no longer aligned with the needs of the diverse 21st-century family.

Two-generation strategies , a commitment to improve outcomes for children and parents simultaneously, offer a new direction for anti-poverty policies. (Other terms have been used, such as dual-generation. Here at New America we use the framing of the Family-Centered Social Policy Initiative.) Two-generation strategies can help avoid an imbalance of services provided to both parents or caregivers and their children. In an effort to build political will, a new report called Top Ten for 2Genfrom Ascend, an Aspen Institute initiative to improve educational outcomes and economic stability, suggests its top 10 policy ideas and principles to advance two-generation efforts.

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Early education leads the group’s Top Ten list, including focus on Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. Both programs have been beneficial for children from low-income families, but parents have not always been successfully recognized. So for those programs, a renewed focus on both generations may be in order.

Head Start should top the priority list for policymakers; after all, the half-century-old program embodies two-generation strategies.

Head Start should top the priority list for policymakers; after all, the half-century-old program embodies two-generation strategies. Head Start began providing quality early learning opportunities--and encouraging parent involvement through family wrap-around services--in 1965. In its report, Ascend recommends that it is time to build beyond these efforts, by strengthening family supports and increasing emphasis on parents. As guest panelist Mark Greenberg of the U.S. Department’s Human Health and Family Services Agency (HHFS) said at the report’s release event, parents play an integral role in children’s success. He stated that HHFS is mindful, and shares the same commitment as Ascend, of conceptualizing new modes of parent engagement and creating a balanced focus on parental employment within Head Start.

New America’s Clare McCann weighed in on the recently revised, soon-to-be-law CCDBG, arguing that it provides its own opportunities for two-generation efforts:

The new version of the law, although far from perfect, would unquestionably mean much-improved child care opportunities for low-income families.

This program is a huge plus for children from low-income families. But once parents get a foot in the door and start earning a slightly higher annual income, they can lose access to federal subsidies for child care. That means both a sudden spike in costs, and the loss of other support services available to parents who receive federal child care subsidies. Ascend’s policy strategy highlights the need for quality child care for children, but also the need for continuous support for parents. They propose increasing the income eligibility limits so that neither children nor their parents are negatively affected by modest career advancement. At the same time, though, the federal government needs to also help make sure that parents have high-quality options for their children, at the very least safe options.

Consideration of families’ needs could, and should, be a strong basis for the development of future policies, and could help lawmakers to create more impactful legislation.

Ascend’s report provides evidence that two-generation strategies have substantial support from community leaders, advocates, researchers, and lawmakers. That might mean there’s room for making them a stronger part of strategies designed to help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Parents and children should not be served separately; it is up to policymakers at all levels to keep this in mind while continuing to help more families break the cycle of poverty.