Skip to main content

Do You Have to Help Parents to Help Their Children?

Are two-generation programs the best way to fight poverty?
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Last week, the White House Rural Council, the National Association of Counties, and the Obama administration announced a number of new efforts aimed at combating childhood poverty. These initiatives are much needed; approximately 2.5 million children live in rural poverty in America. One of these proposed efforts, which first appeared earlier this year in President Barack Obama's 2017 budget, entails $20 million of funding for two Department of Agriculture experimental demonstration projects that rely on what's known as the "two-generation" approach to fighting poverty.

Two-generation programs differ from standard anti-poverty programs in that they provide services to both parents and children under the umbrella of a single program. For an early childhood education program to be "two-generation," for example, it would need to provide high-quality education, training, or employment services to parents as well. The two-generation concept has been around, in various forms, since the 1990s, but enthusiasm for such programs has picked up speed in recent years. In the last five years, the Aspen Institute launched its Ascend program, the George Kaiser Family Foundation funded a two-generation demonstration project in Oklahoma, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation created a new initiative focused on two-generation approaches.

These programs are motivated by a singular logical premise: It's hard to help low-income children without also helping their parents. Even the best preschool can only do so much if a child goes home to a parent struggling with employment, housing, or health issues. And as our understanding of child development has continued to evolve, it's become increasingly clear that a child's home environment—the nutrition and health care she receives, how responsive her caregiver is, the quantity and type of language the child is exposed to—in the first years of her life plays a major role in determining that child's long-term prospects.

Even the best preschool can only do so much if a child goes home to a parent struggling with employment, housing, or health issues.

"To more effectively redirect low-income children's lives, programs should simultaneously target the child and the child's home environment," P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn wrote in a 2014 article on the topic in the Future of Children. "Human capital two-generation programs go about changing the child by fostering learning and social competence through an early childhood education program, and changing the child's home environment by promoting parents' education, employment, and income."

Advocates of these programs also argue that watching their children succeed might be a motivating factor for parents. "[A]s parents experience their young children thriving and learning at the center, they may be more motivated to improve their own education and economic standing," Chase-Lansdale and Brooks-Gunn wrote.

The two-generation premise is promising, and makes intuitive sense, but the concrete evidence on these programs is still lacking. The programs of the '90s were mostly unsuccessful in improving outcomes for parents or their children, and illustrated the challenges inherent to serving two populations with one program. For example, the Enhanced Early Head Start program, which ran from 2004 to 2007 and provided low-income parents with some education, training, and job search assistance, produced virtually no long-term effects. Mary Farrell and JoAnn Hsueh, the researchers who evaluated the program, pointed out that "[b]ecause of implementation challenges, the Enhanced EHS program's formalized employment, educational, and self-sufficiency enhancements were never fully integrated into core EHS services. The field research uncovered substantial variation in how frontline staff addressed self-sufficiency issues."

On a more positive note, today's programs—which Chase-Lansdale and Brooks-Gunn refer to as "Two-Generation 2.0"—bear little resemblance to those of the '90s. For starters, the programs intentionally and thoughtfully provide high-quality services to both parents and children, while many of the older programs (such as the Enhanced EHS program) tended to shortchange one of the generations. Today's two-generation programs are also incorporating new evidence on how best to prepare low-income workers for jobs that pay a living wage.

The Community Advance Project's CareerAdvance program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, utilizes a sectoral training model, which provides parents with training in the well-paid health-care field, maintains strong ties with local employers, and is designed to accommodate the realities of working parents. This is, as I've written before, a particularly promising type of job training program. "CareerAdvance offers a sequence of programs in partnership with community colleges so that participants can make concrete progress, exit at various points with certificates, but then return for further advancement," Chase-Lansdale and Brooks-Gunn wrote.

It's too soon to tell if the better-designed two-generation programs of today will be more successful than their predecessors, but if they do live up to the current hype, they may offer a real shot at lasting change for low-income families.