Reducing Generational Poverty – Some Thoughts

During the last decade of my career we learned a lot about generational poverty and the various social problems that are associated with it. As a result of our hands-on experiences and what we have learned from others – including a lot of people in low income households, here are some of my conclusions:

  • We must greatly increase access to affordable, high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households. Because of the way the brain develops, the years 0-3 are even more important than ages 3-5. Society will get an enormous return on its investments in such services.
  • We must remember that no child chooses the circumstances he/she was born into. And nearly every mom – regardless of income level – wants what is best for her children. Where there’s a lack of knowledge among young parents about ways to prevent problems and help young children develop, we need to try to help close the gap.
  • Where there’s enough good data, we should increase the use of pay-for-success financing mechanisms to scale high impact services and make more effective use of public resources. While few programs or services have enough solid data of long term impact and a high return on investment, Nurse-Family Partnership and a few other high quality early childhood development programs do.
  • We must continue working to improve education attainment levels, but we must do a lot more to ensure that at every step of the way we are doing a good job preparing students for the next step. In other words, every child who completes 3rd grade should be ready for 4th, etc. And there is simply no excuse for students who receive a high school diploma to require remedial work when they enroll in a community college.
  • We must do as much as possible to ensure that everyone earns some credential beyond a high school diploma that will enable them to be employable. It could be an industry-recognized certificate, an associate’s degree, or a four-year college degree. A high school diploma is not enough.
  • Young people in high poverty situations need to be exposed at an early age to career opportunities they might not even know exist. We need to broaden their horizons and help them raise their aspirations.
  • The non-cognitive is just as important as the cognitive. The more we do to help children develop good character, habits of persistence, social and emotional strengths, etc., the greater their likelihood of being successful in school, work, and life. The earlier we start, the better.
  • Every child needs a positive, long term relationship with at least one responsible adult.
  • There is sometimes a big disconnect between the ideas of many “thought leaders,” including some policy makers, and the realities of individuals living in high poverty situations. Too many well-meaning people do not have enough direct hands-on exposure to really understand the problems they are trying to solve. This is one reason a lot of their solutions don’t work as intended.
  • Fragmented and “silo” approaches will never solve our most serious social problems. Poverty, low education levels, crime rates, births to young unwed mothers in low income households, and a host of health issues are all inter-related. They reinforce and compound each other. But we don’t tend to treat them as if they were. The public sector operates through large bureaucratic silos, and the not-for-profit sector is incredibly fragmented. There are a lot of organizations doing a good job addressing some of the pieces, but we are not connecting the pieces well enough to solve the big problems. We must do much more to bring some of the good services and resources together – within and across the various sectors – in complementary, holistic, two-generation approaches that can be sustained over multiple years. This will work.
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On Character Development

In my September 2, 2014 post to this blog, I described how, over the past 20 or more years, my colleagues at Goodwill and I have been working to build a strong, dynamic, serving institution. Such institutions are vitally important to the development and ongoing improvement of a decent, stable society.

But, as emphasized by Richard Reeves in a wonderful essay, “The New Politics of Character,” in National Affairs, that’s not enough. Reeves states that “if we want a better, freer, fairer society, we will have to complement the 20th-century focus on strong institutions with a new (if also ancient) concern for strong individuals. The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people.”

According to Reeves, “The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it…..Gaps in character development correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice versa.”

Lest we think there are simple solutions, though, Reeves provides a dose of reality. For example, he points out that, while rates of teen parenthood have declined, rates have proved stubbornly high among the least-educated, lowest-income groups. It may appear that poor teenagers who become parents are irrationally discounting the future and so failing to demonstrate the virtue of prudence. But there’s an important factor in the equation that we might not realize: “Teen pregnancy appears to have a limited impact on life chances for this group (poor teenagers) because their life chances were so truncated in the first place. Broadly speaking, they are not sacrificing opportunities for wealth and security in the long term for short-term pleasures; their opportunities for future pleasures are few, so as a matter of calculation it makes more sense to pursue the short-term pleasures than it would for a teen from a wealthier family.”

Reeves suggested approach? “The key insight for policymakers is that the task is not simply to teach prudence, but to improve the future prospects of these young adults so they have brighter possible futures to measure the present against…The opportunity agenda is a character agenda, and vice versa.”

Of course, without good role models, it is harder for a child to learn to defer gratification. There is also a growing body of evidence from neuroscientists showing “that growing up in a poor, stressful environment slows the development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation.”

Reeves emphasizes, though, that “The most important influence on character development is not poverty – it is parenting. Good parenting – close, attentive, nurturing – can often compensate for material poverty.”

This is reassuring for those of us at Goodwill in central Indiana. We’ve now been implementing Nurse-Family Partnership for nearly three years, and well over 600 babies have been born to the moms who have enrolled. All of those moms want to do what’s best for their babies. But when our nurses first meet them, few know how to be good parents or to provide the kind of environment in the home that is conducive to the proper health and development of their children. That’s a lot of what our nurses emphasize during their 2-1/2 year relationship with these families. And that’s a big part of why NFP nationally has shown such remarkably strong results reducing the incidence of a lot of negative social indicators among children whose parents participated in NFP.

Of course, NFP is only part of a long term solution to a lot of major social problems. But thirty years of solid evidence illustrates why it should be scaled as much as possible. We intend to do our part.

The War on Poverty

In January 1964, President Johnson declared war on poverty. During the days leading up to and immediately following the 50-year observation of that declaration, many have commented on the progress, lack of progress, or outright failure of that “war.”

In the January 7, 2014 Wall Street Journal, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation noted that in the U.S., living standards among the poor are much improved over those of 50 years ago. He also pointed out that the “collapse of marriage in low income communities has played a substantial role in the declining capacity for self support.”

In the January 5, 2014 New York Times, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution also emphasized that “Children in single-parent families are more likely to be poor, fail in school, have mental health issues and be idle as young adults, all of which reduce self-sufficiency.” Haskins concluded his piece by stating that “we don’t need another war on poverty as much as we need to improve the programs we already have and create the conditions for more personal responsibility regarding education, work, marriage, and child bearing.”

In the same issue of the New York Times, Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute emphasized that “expanding opportunity for poor kids will require that we ‘incentivize’ the right behaviors, attitudes, and values, through economic carrots and sticks. Culture, not just economics, must be a front in the war on immobility.”

And in the January 9 New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff emphasized the importance of early interventions including parent coaching to get pregnant women to drink and smoke less and to encourage at-risk moms to talk to their children more. Among the successful programs he mentioned is Nurse-Family Partnership, which Goodwill is implementing in Indianapolis.

Kristoff also emphasized the importance of programs that encourage jobs for the most at-risk groups, and both he and Rector mentioned the earned income tax credit as a benefit to the working poor and for society. On a related note, Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw wrote in the January 5 New York Times that in efforts to help those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, the most effective solution would be to increase the skills of those low-wage workers.

While there is general agreement that more needs to be done to reduce poverty, there is certainly no consensus on what should be added, increased, modified, or eliminated. Bringing this closer to home, though, reading these and numerous other commentaries has reinforced my belief that the directions we have taken at Goodwill are on target. The older youth and adults who enroll in our Excel Centers represent “low hanging fruit” in efforts to raise education attainment levels. In addition, our emphasis on continuing to support our graduates until they earn post-secondary credentials and become established in the workforce is likely to play a major role not only in helping our graduates become economically self-sufficient, but also in ensuring a quick economic return to society for its investment in our schools.

Nurse-Family Partnership is part of a long-term solution to generational poverty that also has a strongly positive economic return to society. In addition to improving pregnancy outcomes, NFP helps parents learn how to provide competent care that will enhance the health and development of their children. NFP also helps parents improve their economic self-sufficiency by developing plans for their future, continuing their education, and finding work.

Everything we do at Goodwill ultimately plays a part in helping individuals and families increase their economic self-sufficiency. Cumulatively, these efforts can – at least in our small corner of the world – begin to reduce generational poverty and the various social problems that accompany it.

Big societal investments with big returns

In 1944 Congress passed what became known as the G.I. Bill, which provided a number of benefits for returning World War II veterans. From the time the bill passed till 1956, 2.2 million veterans used the G. I. Bill’s education benefits to attend colleges or universities. Most of those veterans would not have been able to afford college otherwise. My dad was one of those, and he became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
The G. I. Bill was a massive public investment that made possible a huge increase in the number of Americans with post-secondary degrees. The country has benefited from that initial post-war investment ever since.

In 1956, thanks largely to the efforts of President Eisenhower, Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of the Interstate Highway System. We continue to benefit from that massive public investment in physical infrastructure that greatly reduced travel time in the U.S. and made possible substantial increases in productivity.

In 1961, President Kennedy issued a challenge to NASA to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. The massive public investment that followed President Kennedy’s challenge resulted in Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” in July 1969. The new or improved technologies that resulted from the research and development needed to accomplish that goal led to numerous other developments that continue to provide benefits to our society.

Contrast those large public investments in higher education, physical infrastructure, and research and development focused on a specific goal with similarly huge amounts that have been spent since the 1960s on a wide array of social programs and supports to alleviate poverty. Despite the enormous expenditures, the official poverty rate is higher today than it was in the late 1960s.

Is there anything we can do that might enable us to start reducing poverty? While there are no quick fixes or panaceas, we have become increasingly convinced that, given the current situation, an important piece of a long term solution would be a sustained, substantial investment in high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households.

According to Ready Nation, a business partnership for early childhood and economic success that is part of America’s Promise Alliance:

  • “Disadvantaged children can be 18 months behind their peers by the time they start kindergarten.
  • Children not ready for kindergarten are half as likely to read well by third grade.
  • Children not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out.”

In a September 14, 2013 Opinionator piece on NYTimes.com, Professor James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist at the University of Chicago who has studied this issue for decades, wrote, “Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves in better education, health, and economic outcomes.” There is an enormous amount of data supporting that statement.

We see the need for such opportunities every day in our work with low income moms in the Excel Centers and Nurse-Family Partnership. If we made a large enough commitment in the U.S. over an extended period of time to expand the availability of high quality early childhood development programs for kids in low income households, there is a strong probability we would substantially reduce generational poverty and a lot of the social problems associated with it. And, as with the investments in higher education, infrastructure, and research and development in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, our country would benefit from those investments for decades.

Networks – Part II

In my February 15, 2013 post, I wrote about Goodwill’s implementation of Nurse-Family Partnership as an example of a “network” approach to better align and leverage resources to improve lives and help break a cycle of generational poverty. It is a holistic, whole family approach that teaches and reinforces good parenting skills, helps improve pregnancy outcomes and the health of the child, and results in changes in parental behaviors and the environment in the home in ways that are highly conducive to the proper nurturing and development of the child.

Goodwill and other members of the Nurse-Family Partnership network also offer education and employment opportunities for the parents and provide assistance in dealing with housing, transportation, and other issues that are common in low income households. Overall, this approach is helping build stronger families and preventing a lot of social problems from developing later.

The network we have developed that supports and enhances Nurse-Family Partnership’s effectiveness in central Indiana is one of several networks Goodwill has been developing in recent years. In fact, our organization is evolving into a network of networks that are supported by and often linked by shared services.

We have a business development/employment network that includes a number of companies that contract with Goodwill for services that are performed in large part by Goodwill employees with disabilities, criminal histories, and/or low education levels – people who, in many cases, have few vocational options. We also have relationships with companies that hire individuals who are prepared and want to move into situations elsewhere that might offer better long term opportunities for them.

In addition, we are developing two new networks that will further enhance education options for young people and adults. One of those is a network of organizations in other communities and states that will operate Excel Centers under a licensing arrangement with us. The Excel Center model is unique, and those that become part of the Excel Center Network will have access to a lot of materials and services we have been developing over the past three years. They also will be able to shorten their learning curves and become effective more quickly as a result of our experiences.

Finally, we have recently launched the Indiana Network of Independent Schools (INIS) to offer services to other schools that do not currently have access to the level of academic, data analysis, and back office support services we have at Goodwill. By using services offered by INIS, the staff of those schools will be able to utilize their time more effectively to help children succeed.

Supporting all of these networks is an infrastructure that has developed to support Goodwill’s retail operations, commercial services, community-based initiatives for individuals and families, and the growing number of schools we operate.

This development of this “network of networks” is largely a result of two factors. One is the number and quality of relationships we have with many organizations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. The other is a lot of talented staff who see how the resources and capabilities of others can be

combined or leveraged, sometimes in very creative ways, with our in-house resources and capabilities to substantially increase our overall effectiveness and impact and make better use of the total resources available in the communities in which we operate.