Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice. Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.
Watching the grief, anger, fear, and frustration unfold from Ferguson to Baltimore has been immensely painful on many levels. The recent events in these cities are a symptom of so many deep problems, including our failure as a country to ensure that all families have what they need to help their children thrive and that the communities in which they live can create a web of support around them.
Raising a child who can conquer life’s challenges is tough for everyone. But lower-income parents often face extraordinary barriers, including unstable employment, lack of affordable housing, poor schools, inadequate transportation, dangerous neighborhoods, and, for communities of color, systemic racism.
As I think about where we need to go from here, I find myself considering the metaphor of weaving a web that supports families as they work to support their children. It is painfully clear to each of us that the web of support in our communities has gaping holes and is failing to support all families in need.
There are two ways that our web is failing. To begin with, there are many of us working on behalf of children and families—policymakers, practitioners, community members, researchers—who each work to strengthen particular strands of the web. Yet it is clear that despite our efforts, far too many of the strands are still too weak to provide the supports that families need. For example,
- Only one in four eligible families receives federal housing assistance.
- Child care subsidies only serve 18 percent of families eligible under federal guidelines.
- Only one in ten low-income parents is enrolled in education or training programs to build their work skills.
- Almost 16 million children suffer from food insecurity.
However, just strengthening individual strands isn’t enough, as a true web must function as an interconnected whole. Each strand must be connected with the others, working together to support families and their children, linking together so that there are no gaps or holes.
There are many ways we can more effectively link our efforts to weave a stronger web for our families. One strategy is to make sure that our policies and programs recognize the interconnections between the needs of children and their parents, as the challenges faced by parents affect their children and vice versa. For example,
- Research shows that too many young children are chronically absent from school (meaning they miss 10 percent or more of school days), and that problems such as homelessness or parental mental health can play an important role in whether children are at school.
- Parents trying to get the education and training they need to better support their children can face challenges getting child care, which makes it difficult to enroll in and/or complete education or training.
- Parents living in severely distressed neighborhoods face particular challenges, such as concentrated poverty and exposure to violence, which can create mental health challenges that make it harder for them to help their children thrive. More needs to be done to effectively integrate a strong mental health component into efforts to support parents in these communities, including job skills training and parenting support.
In each of these examples, the failure of policies and programs to address interconnections undercuts the effectiveness of efforts in any individual area.
Tackling these interconnections can be complicated, particularly in the context of underfunded social services that are having trouble maintaining the strength of individual strands. However, awareness of the importance of these interconnections in policy and practice is growing and promising practices are starting to emerge.
For example, the recent reauthorization of the federal Child Care and Development Fund now establishes that parents can keep their child care subsidies when they lose their jobs temporarily, stabilizing child care and supporting children’s sense of security while making it easier for parents to look for employment. A growing number of communities are experimenting with “two-generation” strategies, working to identify and support services that simultaneously address the early education needs of children and the workforce development needs of their parents. And the Work Support Strategies initiative has shown how states can coordinate enrollment across core work support programs such as food stamps, Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program, and child care so low-income parents get all the help for which they and their children are eligible.
More efforts such as these are essential if we are to ensure that families in poor communities of cities like Ferguson and Baltimore have what they need to give their children a brighter future.
Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute