Urban Wire Four Keys to a Successful Two-Generation Initiative
Susan J. Popkin, Marla McDaniel
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Nearly one in six American children live in poverty. Being poor at birth increases the likelihood that children will remain poor. And because of deeply embedded structural racism, children of color born in families with low incomes are more likely to live in underinvested communities.

The nature of the labor market, the lack of affordable housing and child care, poorly performing schools, and inequitable access to services like broadband all make it harder for families to escape persistent poverty. Policies and programs like the Biden administration’s child tax credit aim to lift children out of poverty, but even if they are successful, families will likely need additional support to overcome the consequences—and trauma—of living in persistent poverty.

Over the past decade, there have been renewed investments in and research on two-generation programs that help parents and their children move out of poverty together. Today, there is general agreement that they help families more than traditional, siloed programs, but there is limited evidence on their ability to improve educational outcomes for children, economic outcomes for parents, and overall family well-being.

For example, an evaluation of the CareerAdvance program (PDF) in Tulsa showed that children in the program had better attendance and stronger language and math skills than  children in traditional Head Start, and parents had positive workforce outcomes. But it’s the only major rigorous quasi-experimental research on the two-generation approach. And there’s growing recognition that where a family lives determines their health and economic outcomes, but literature on place-based, two-generation programs is sparse.

The Urban Institute’s research on two such initiatives offers important lessons for practice and strategies for evaluating these efforts. We’ve been assessing and providing resources on the Housing Opportunities and Services Together Initiative, a demonstration in three public housing communities that explores housing as a platform for services, and Family Centered Community Change, which includes local partnerships in three communities that develop integrated sets of services in high-poverty neighborhoods to help parents and children succeed together.

Because these studies were not formal experiments, we can’t draw definitive conclusions about the programs’ effects. But we can offer four key elements that made for a successful program:

  • engaged coaches or case managers who know the whole family and provide ongoing encouragement and support, as well as quick crisis intervention
  • “glue” money for supporting service partnerships and staff time for coordinating services
  • strong partnerships that work toward the common goal of supporting families
  • an effective backbone organization with the ability to provide or raise funds to ensure sustainability

These lessons suggest that two-generation approaches are succeeding in meeting families’ needs in many ways, and we should not disregard these promising efforts because of a lack of evidence of their impact. But we also need a better understanding of the forces that influence such programs—such as systemic racism, the unequal labor market, the persistent lack of affordable housing and child care—that inevitably limit what even the most successful initiatives can accomplish. Without concerted attention to these factors, it is unlikely that two-generation approaches alone would help many families navigate out of poverty.

These programs have been able to and deserve recognition for providing critically needed support for struggling families. Policymakers and researchers could accept the uncertainty of imperfect information from comprehensive, but nonexperimental, evaluations and support these community-based efforts that strive to make families’ lives better through deliberate two-generation approaches.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Families
Tags Families with low incomes Poverty Racial and ethnic disparities Economic well-being
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center