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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, Two Generations at a Time

New anti-poverty programs, focused on helping children and parents both, are succeeding where others have failed.
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On Wednesday afternoons, Toneshia Forshee picks up her son, a four-year-old who suffers from optic nerve hypoplasia and wears thick Coke-bottle glasses, from the early childhood education center he attends in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She brings him home to her immaculate two-bedroom apartment in a well-maintained complex down the street from a Sonic burger joint. She makes dinner for her son and her one-year-old daughter, and the threesome eats together at a table in the corner of the living room, under a painstakingly arranged gallery wall of family photographs interspersed with wooden signs reading "Hope," "Love," and "Life" in decorative script. After dinner, Forshee tucks her kids into bed and, four nights a week, she heads to work.

Forshee, 25, is a phlebotomist at a nearby hospital—she spends her nights doing blood draws, sometimes over 200 in a five-hour period. When she finishes her shift at 7 a.m., she heads home to take her son to school. She spends her days with her daughter, catching up on sleep whenever her daughter naps.

"I like night shift because it works out for me with the kids, and I like night shift because it moves fast," Forshee says with a smile. "The only reason I don't like it is because, when I go in the rooms, they get mad because I have to wake them."

Forshee received her phlebotomy training at Tulsa Tech, a public career and technical school where she also completed a certified nursing assistant (CNA) program in 2015. This year, she hopes to begin work toward a licensed practical nurse (LPN) certification that would result in a pay increase.

All of Forshee's tuition and school supplies, for both her phlebotomy and CNA coursework, were paid for by a program called CareerAdvance, a joint effort of the social services organization CAP Tulsa and Tulsa Community WorkAdvance, a workforce development agency. If she continues on for her LPN training, CareerAdvance will pay for that too. The school that Forshee's son attends (free of charge) is a Head Start early childhood education center run by CAP Tulsa, an anti-poverty agency unique to Oklahoma. A recent long-term evaluation of CAP Tulsa schools tallied impressive results—specifically, CAP Tulsa alumni performed better on math tests in middle school, were 31 percent less likely to be held back a grade, and were 34 percent less likely to be chronically absent in eighth grade—though the positive effects were not observed in African-American or male students. Steven Dow, the executive director of CAP Tulsa, notes that the results pertain to children who were in the program a decade ago, and that it's changed significantly since then, but that the effects of Head Start are likely still smaller for select subgroups.

CareerAdvance is a particularly well-designed demonstration of a new model for serving low-income families that focuses on providing coordinated, high-quality services to both children and their parents under the umbrella of one program. The children of most CareerAdvance participants attend CAP Tulsa schools in their early years, but families whose children age out of the schools also receive financial and logistical assistance with after-school care.

"If we're delivering very state-of-the-art, high-quality early education, that can have an impact," Dow says. "But we might be able to amplify that if we're also stabilizing and improving the economic well-being of the household in which children are developing."

This approach—serving children and their parents in a coordinated manner—has been tried before. In the 1990s, a number of two-generation programs were piloted around the country, but most evaluations found virtually no long-term effects for parents or their children. In recent years, however, enthusiasm for the concept has re-emerged. In 2011, the Aspen Institute's Anne Mosle, after noticing a dearth of programs focused on serving families as a cohesive unit, launched the Ascend Initiative, which funneled resources into two-generation approaches. A number of other large philanthropic organizations are also reorienting funding to focus on two-generation models. Last September, Senators Susan Collins and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation on the topic, and, earlier this year, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices hosted a related policy forum.

The architects of today's programs have learned from the failures of the past. Unlike earlier programs, today's approaches are intentionally designed to serve both generations of a family.

"The No. 1 thing that we think is necessary is articulating and being accountable for outcomes for both children and parents," says Lori Severens, the assistant director for leadership and design of the Ascend Initiative. "Before, too many efforts focused on children, for example, and only provided referrals for parents, and vice versa, instead of thinking about what can we do to really help the entire family."

The creators of these programs have an ambitious goal, one that has long eluded reformers and advocates. They are, in Severens' words, "trying to break the cycle of poverty once and for all."


On a quiet street near Denver's Cheesman Park, in the midst of 100-year-old houses with wide front porches, sits Warren Village, a transitional-housing facility for low-income single parents. The approximately 90 families at Warren Village, who undergo an extensive application process, live virtually rent-free, paying as little as $25 a month for a one-, two-, or three-bedroom apartment. In exchange for the cheap housing, they are required to either work or attend school full-time, to participate in monthly life-skills classes, and to abide by the facility's rules and regulations.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

When families first move into Warren Village, on-site case managers, known as family advocates, help parents develop a long-term career or educational plan. Once families are settled, family advocates serve as coaches and cheerleaders, encouraging families to remember their goals and helping with everything from registering at the local community college, to applying for financial aid or scholarships, to accessing mental-health services.

"I love the support—there's always someone to talk to," says Kelly Shanley, a 29-year-old mother of two who wants to be a nurse. "Anytime I ever need anything, they help me."

Unlike the CareerAdvance program, which currently only offers training in the health-care sector, residents of Warren Village pursue a variety of career paths. Both programs, however, draw heavily from the best available evidence on workforce policy. Career counseling is driven by local economic conditions, and parents are encouraged to pursue "stackable certifications"—post-secondary credentials that don't require multi-year educational commitments and that allow parents to progress steadily along a career pathway, with frequent transitions between school and the labor force as schedules and financing allow. While some of Warren Village's residents may begin work on a bachelor's degree, or may pursue a bachelor's degree later on, they're encouraged to complete an associate's degree or other post-secondary credential during their time at the facility. "Ideally, we would like to fit something in during the time they can live here, which gives them an option for employment when they leave," says Allison Miller, a family advocate at Warren Village.

The CareerAdvance program in Tulsa, which is partially funded by the Affordable Care Act's Health Profession Opportunity Grant program, is heavily focused on shorter-term certifications. When the program first launched in 2009, it planned to offer longer career pathways, but staff quickly realized that they had underestimated how prepared clients were for community-college work and overestimated clients' appetite for four years of schooling.

In response, CareerAdvance added several developmental education pathways to serve parents who aren't yet ready for community college, and today offers training in seven certifications: CNA, LPN, patient care technician, pharmacy technician, phlebotomist, dental assistant, and medical assistant. All except the LPN pathway can be completed in less than one year.

"It's easier to be successful if you can have those incremental wins, those small wins at a faster pace," says Janae Bradford, the manager of family advancement for CareerAdvance. "Fifteen weeks [of training] is a lot easier to swallow than two years."

Teresa Eckrich Sommer, a professor at Northwestern University who is part of a team of researchers currently evaluating CareerAdvance, points out that this type of career training approach resolves a longstanding debate in the workforce policy field. "It really balances what can be this tension between how much energy and time is invested in education and skills and how much is in actually getting needed income, as well as hands-on experience in employment," Sommer says.


What defines both CareerAdvance and Warren Village, as well as other modern-day two-generation models, is their focus on true wrap-around case management, on being something of a one-stop shop for clients. Family advocates at Warren Village don't simply tell a parent that they're likely eligible for a Pell grant to fund their education; they help them complete the paperwork and follow up on their progress. And CareerAdvance academic coaches don't just tell participants what to bring to class on the first day; they ensure that parents have the childcare and transportation they need in order to make it there.

"Not very many of us buy the individual parts to build our computers," Dow says. "We want to be able to go and get something that's got everything already assembled. ... And that's not the way we do social policy—we expect folks that have the biggest challenges and barriers to try to piece together a set of things that don't fit together very well."

Forshee says that the extra assistance CareerAdvance provided has made all the difference. Her first attempt at higher education—two years of community college immediately after high school—was not a success.

"When I did two years by myself, like before I did the CareerAdvance, I wasn't confident," she says. "I was quiet in the class. I sat in the back. If I needed help, I wouldn't ask the questions because I'd feel like it was stupid. With CareerAdvance, I got a lot of confidence. They help you pick the right classes; they have the career coach. It's so helpful."


The two-generation model, in many respects, taps into a truth that most parents know innately, but that workforce policy has largely ignored: Parents, when they're capable, will do almost anything for their children.

"The typical workforce approach looks at a group of parents and sees parenthood as a barrier because parents need childcare," Sommer says. "And we're looking at this as really turning it on its head and saying, 'Actually, being a parent isn't a barrier, it's a huge motivation to improve your life.'"

At the heart of the two-generation model is the hope that the motivation goes both ways. Advocates of the model hope that low-income children who watch their parents work hard to complete post-secondary education will be inspired to do so themselves.

"We have a lot of people, anecdotally, come back to focus groups and say, 'Well, we would sit down at night and do homework together,'" Bradford says. "Or they're getting ready in the morning and everyone's putting their backpack on. A lot of the parents, through focus group feedback, have talked about the role modeling that they're doing for their children, that this is what you do as an adult: You go to school; you keep going to school; that's how important school is."

It's too soon to tell if this new two-generation approach will have staying power, but Sommer and her colleagues just finished a paper on the one-year outcomes of early CareerAdvance participants, and the results are encouraging. Sixty-one percent of participants earned a post-secondary credential after one year in the program, compared to just 3 percent of those in the control group. CareerAdvance participants were also more likely to be employed in the health-care sector than those in the control group, demonstrated higher levels of psychological well-being (despite the demands of the program), and reported stronger levels of career commitment, self-efficacy, and optimism. And children in the program exhibited better attendance rates and lower rates of chronic absenteeism. But to truly understand whether the program has improved the economic stability of families, researchers will need to look at earnings and employment outcomes over a longer time horizon. And it will be decades before researchers know if programs like these can actually change the life trajectories of poor children.

Toneshia Forshee thinks she might have liked college—she went to a sorority party once and loved the music and the dancing. And she wants her kids to do things a little differently than she did. "I wish I would have went to a university and had that experience. I want them to have the experience of being in college and living in a dorm," she says. "It's different than for me, going to school and having kids and stressing out. I want them to go to school before they have kids."

A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.