To fight poverty, we need a two-generation strategy
If President Biden wants the government to work for people again, a good place to start is making it work for low-income families.
The administration should pursue a two-generation social and education initiative — using existing funding streams and infrastructure — to efficiently and effectively support the country’s most vulnerable families. Two-generation programming focused on social and education supports, will give entire families a pathway to live more stable and secure lives.
Consider a new teen parent. She’s almost completed her GED and enrolled in local classes to further her progress. She has a steady job in retail and her manager often offers her extra shifts. But she has a young child, so both GED classes and additional work hours are out of reach without consistent child care. She already relies on multiple government programs — rental assistance, income supplements and food benefits.
Two-generation programs would provide key supports to this and other families by equally prioritizing parents and children. They address the entire family’s immediate needs, such as food insecurity and provide parents with strategic support, such as continuing education, so that families don’t need to rely on government assistance in the long term. When done well, two-generation social and education programs foster multigenerational economic mobility so families can be successful in life.
Doubling down on a two-generation approach can work if we combat the unintentional inefficiencies baked into our current education and social programs that prevent progress. Here are four ways:
First, programming must have clear goals to ensure economic mobility for the entire family. Many programs for jobs training, energy assistance and other sources of aid are narrow in focus, targeting only parents or only children and address only one roadblock in the myriad challenges low-income families face. Americans need comprehensive support to tackle deep-seeded challenges.
The administration can tackle generational poverty by designing programming to help parents and children navigate the various challenges they face in health, education, housing and climbing the economic ladder to better jobs.
For parents, that includes workforce training programs to access careers in high-need employment areas or continuing their own education to achieve a high school diploma or college degree. For their children, it is access to high-quality early care and education, especially important for low-income youngsters and high-quality K-12 schools after that.
Second, the administration must blend existing funding streams that already have a two-generation focus. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in partnership with the U.S. Secretaries of Education, Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development should inventory and consolidate the many disparate two-generation funding streams — from large programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, to smaller programs like the Community Services Block Grant — into one program with shared priorities and goals that’s more easily accessible for families.
Third, the administration should work with states to reduce the complexity of the bureaucratic, administrative processes low-income families must go through to access government assistance. Too often, programming meant to support low-income families is prohibitively burdensome and complicated to access, excluding families from needed services. Application processes vary by state and by program; at their most cumbersome, families spend hours in government offices, answering hundreds of detailed questions and providing extensive documentation to access benefits from one program — and then must do it all over again to access other programs.
There is precedent for addressing these barriers: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act allows states to make it easier for low-income families to access and retain benefits, like extending SNAP time limits, providing WIC benefits in advance and allowing multiple entities to work together to provide school meals at a centralized physical location.
Fourth, we need to provide programming where families can access them. Early childhood programs are the right place to house and provide these services. A well-designed program should make it possible for parents to apply for and receive all the services they are entitled to at the same location they are bringing their children each day, instead of the current reality of navigating different agencies and offices, in different physical locations. Parents should also be able to take advantage of workforce and education opportunities at these locations.
Many programs show it is possible to streamline in one physical location. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children already provides services at community centers and schools. Head Start grantees, like CAP Tulsa, already created workforce training programs for parents using Health Profession Opportunity Grants.
Our current approach to education and social programs, by design, leaves millions of families stranded without the resources they need. But that outcome isn’t intentional and more importantly, the administration can fix it. The two-generational strategy is government at its best: working for families without needless bureaucracy.
Ashley LiBetti is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners.