Policies intended to improve families’ economic security and children’s well-being often don’t consider the needs of parents and their children together. Federal, state, and local systems often push work for parents in ways that are out of balance with other important goals, like securing high-quality child care and job benefits that allow parents to spend time and resources on their children’s learning, health, and well-being. Policies like the child tax credit are a step in the right direction, but we need more systems-level solutions, especially for children and families in persistent poverty.
As research continues to reveal the economic and social importance of supporting good outcomes for whole families, many state and local policymakers are joining a new movement focused on policies and systems reforms that recognize that parents’ economic fortunes are deeply entwined with their children’s. Two-generation (“2Gen”) policies and strategies link the work of parents (breadwinning and caregiving) to the work of their children (growing up healthy and prepared for the 21st-century economy).
Below are five evaluation principles crucial to making successful 2Gen policies.
1. Measure and account for outcomes for both children and parents.
Outcomes for children and parents, or the adults in children’s lives, are at the heart of any 2Gen program or policy. Policymakers, drawing on insights from families, should articulate and track outcomes across system silos that often serve children and adults separately.
2. Embed learning and evaluation in policy design and systems development.
2Gen policies need a strong learning and evaluation foundation. Systems reform and policymaking can be a complex undertaking. Policymakers need to know up front how to measure success at both the population and systems levels and how to articulate the assumptions underlying a particular approach to achieving intended outcomes. Armed with clear thresholds for near- and long-term success, policymakers can produce better policies and services based on real-time learning.
3. Use multiple approaches.
Effective 2Gen strategies draw on a growing multidisciplinary knowledge and evidence base, as well as data-driven field experience, to design and adapt effective policy approaches to advance outcomes for children and parents. 2Gen learning and evaluation partners (both independent and internal to agencies) should draw on a mix of research methods, such as formative evaluation, investigative methods of the biological sciences, and quasi-experimental and experimental design. Policymakers must also have the analytic capacity to translate research lessons into effective policy.
4. Use and promote data.
Gathering, sharing, and analyzing data are necessary for the continual reengineering of one-generation policies into 2Gen policies and enhanced outcomes for families. Policymakers should use current data holdings and adapt internal data-review processes to analyze outcomes for whole families across adult and child system silos. Before requiring partners to collect new data, policymakers must clearly understand and articulate the data’s analytic usefulness.
5. Build internal capacity and ensure ongoing feedback.
Entities that design and implement 2Gen policies need solid capacity to support embedded 2Gen learning and evaluation efforts. Professional development and interagency networking mechanisms ensure that policy designers and managers are knowledgeable about 2Gen learning and evaluation methods and their findings. Legislative bodies and agencies also solicit feedback from families, grantees, researchers, and other governmental partners, and they compile and report on 2Gen outcomes.
Innovations on the state and local level can shape the future of federal policies that support working parents and their children. A new publication from Ascend at the Aspen Institute, which I cowrote with managing director Marjorie Sims, offers an overview of what states like Colorado, Maryland, Tennessee, and Utah are doing to foster brighter outcomes for whole families. US senators Martin Heinrich and Susan Collins have also replicated many successful state-level initiatives and promising aspects of the 2Gen movement in their recently introduced Two-Generation Economic Empowerment Act.
As more and more Americans find it hard to move up the social and economic ladder, 2Gen approaches offer a promising pathway to a more equitable and happy future for all families.