Poverty has many faces. We recognize the defeated expressions of homeless panhandlers on street corners and freeway exits, but poverty also hides in households wherein single parents struggle to balance multiple low-paying jobs while caring for children.
This common, often-crippling situation stacks the odds against these children, depriving them of the learning and support they need to emerge successfully from impoverished circumstances. They miss out on or otherwise forego educational opportunities and grow up facing massive hurdles.
Our elected officials, to their credit, have not ignored the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Multiple presidents over the last century—from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush—have implemented programs and philosophies to combat poverty. Their legacies continue to shape the political mold today. For example, to mitigate the enormous cost of higher education, which has long been seen as a barrier to social mobility, elected officials established federal Pell Grants. Since 2009, over eight million financially-disadvantaged students have received Pell Grants every year.
Private-sector organizations are also working to allay the harsh realities of poverty. Faith-based organizations and philanthropies have developed highly effective support mechanisms, including shelter for the homeless, job training and placement, and food relief in exchange for service. While these efforts can help address individual situations, poverty, on the whole, remains a massive problem in need of large-scale solutions.
Almost two million U.S. households today live in extreme poverty, which is defined by the World Bank as living on less than $2 a day per person. One-third to one-half of the nearly four million children in poor households will remain in poverty as adults, reinforcing the crushing reality of intergenerational poverty. This problem distresses society morally and weighs it down economically.
The political left argues that the cycle of intergenerational poverty could be broken by more aggressively ramping up the minimum wage or by increasing spending on pre-existing social programs. The political right counters that a higher wage floor puts downward pressure on employment, further hurting the most poor, and many social programs have unintended consequences that actually exacerbate causes of poverty. The resulting political stalemate disempowers traditional social programs and economic arguments, and simply fails to touch the root problems. Similarly, solutions from philanthropies and faith-based organizations are unable to make a sufficiently large, systemic impact.
According to several recent bodies of research, programs that bolster family income while simultaneously addressing children’s developmental needs have the greatest likelihood of improving outcomes for both generations. Two-generation programs that work with parents and children concurrently are becoming prevalent across America. They support parents in improving home environments and household income, and they support children by offering accessible, affordable, and impactful pre-K education. Rather than merely providing a few more bread crumbs for survival, these innovative solutions help more individuals and families break through the barriers that constrain them to lives of poverty.
Two-generation social programs are relatively young, but they have great promise because they address the core causes of cyclical poverty: they help parents change poverty-inducing behavior and boost children’s capability during crucial developmental periods. In an age where collecting data and tracking outcomes is more accurate and nimble than ever, policymakers can correctly and swiftly measure the impact of two-generation policies. They can then recalibrate, optimize, and scale the programs that most effectively propel poverty-stricken people toward the middle class while defunding those activities that don’t generate the promised results.
We may never be able to completely eradicate poverty’s many faces, but by correctly designing, measuring and improving two-generation programs we will be working smarter to help the disadvantaged members of our society.