If policymakers want to reduce poverty, they'll have to shake up a fragmented system that sometimes works against itself. That's the thrust of a recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is calling for a "two-generation" approach to helping low-income families.
Almost half of the nation's families live in poverty, according to the report. One solution, authors argue, is to support more programs that address the needs of parents and children simultaneously. In particular, governments could do a lot more to maximize antipoverty programs already in place. Part of the problem, said Stan Dorn, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, is that government usually requires people to visit different offices in different locations to get help paying for food, housing, child care and other living expenses. "Often it's the same kind of information that you're providing to all these different places," Dorn said. "That's an awful lot to ask of people and it's a little silly, but that's just a basic feature in our public benefit world."
Given that fragmentation, it's no surprise that in some states, more than a quarter of nonelderly adults who qualify for food stamps and public health insurance for their children only participate in one of the two programs, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute.
People trying to increase their household income also face perverse incentives where antipoverty programs can undermine one another. For example, if parents on food stamps see a big enough pay bump in some states, they stand to lose the very child care subsidies that allow them to work full time.
Some states are already in the early stages of retooling antipoverty programs with families in mind. Last year, for instance, the Utah Legislature created a commission to study intergenerational poverty and recommend ways to address it.
Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, spoke with Governing about the ramifications of a two-generational approach to poverty in state government. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Since we already have antipoverty programs for children and anti-poverty programs for adults, what would be different about a two-generation approach?
Individually these programs can be relatively successful. But what [keeps them from working for families] is context. The parents are not only workers. They are parents. They have responsibilities within the family -- as breadwinners, nurturers and teachers. On the child side, things like early childhood education or child care programs don't take into consideration what's going on [at home] or what the child might need to succeed educationally.
Some of the background materials on the Kids Count website mention fragmented state systems and eligibility requirements. Give me an example of adult- and child-oriented programs that aren't integrated in the most ideal way?
Where the barriers are often the biggest is in the context of workforce development for adults, especially for young adults. There's little attention paid to whether or not they are parents. A parent might not be able to do a particular training program or take a particular job because of responsibilities at home. That's an area where we think there's a lot more that can be done, particularly in supporting parents with access to early learning and education for children.
The report mentions programs that operate largely in isolation from one another, despite touching different members of the same family. How could states do a better job of bringing together siloed child and adult programs?
For government, it's complicated. In the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act this year, for example, about 15 percent of a state's allocation can be used in a flexible way. So we're encouraging states to think about using that flexible funding to support early childhood education for families with parents in workforce programs. Another example is the idea of "no wrong door." In Louisiana, they have ensured that when parents are enrolled in the food stamp program, their children will also have access to the state Children's Health Insurance Program.
It seems so common sense that you would want to have these programs consider family background. How did we get to a point where anti-poverty programs undermine one another?
It is common sense. It's not common practice. Part of it is the idea, whether it's just perceived or reality, that the funding mechanisms don't allow for creativity in terms of programs or how you pay for a staff person. We really put these programs on the hook for individual results: How many parents are in that job training program or how many children get screened for development abilities when they're four years old? They're very individualized and siloed outcomes. So we become focused on that one outcome. But when you take a step back, you can get more children screened if you remove whatever obstacles keep a parent from taking the child to pediatric care visits. The barrier to children getting screened might be that the parent has a job that won't allow time off. Programs should look at whole families when they measure outcomes -- even if different organizations are involved.