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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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.

A Disconnect

Several years ago a friend of mine told me, “Jim, I live on the northside (a relatively affluent part of Indianapolis), I work on the northside, I go to church on the northside. I don’t know any poor people.” I told him to come down to Goodwill and I’d introduce him to some.

More recently, I saw another friend of mine who has been tutoring some of the students in Goodwill’s Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. He grew up in a low income part of the city and has been heavily involved in the community for a long time. When I asked him how the tutoring was going, he quietly said, “Jim, I thought I understood the issues (related to the mostly poor, mostly minority students in the school). But until I got to know some of these kids one-on-one, I didn’t have a clue.”

Both of those friends are good, kind, well-intentioned people. So, I’m sure, are most of the politicians from suburbs and small towns who from time to time make statements and introduce legislation that indicate a near-complete lack of understanding of the kind of generational poverty that plagues the poorest, most crime ridden parts of our cities. If nothing else, it would be helpful if they simply acknowledged that no one chooses to be born into those circumstances. Some of us were just luckier than others.

Somewhat related to this lack of knowledge and understanding, an article by Ken Stern titled “Why the Rich Don’t Give” in the April 2013 issue of The Atlantic notes that “One of the most surprising, and perhaps confounding, facts of charity in America is that the people who can least afford to give are the ones who donate the greatest percentages of their income.” The author wonders if “the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their relative stinginess” and states “It seems that insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.” I hasten to add that I do not draw a broad generalization about this, as I’ve known plenty of generous wealthy people (and a few stingy poor people, too).

However, even in an organization such as Goodwill that has been working with a high poverty population for decades, we sometimes don’t really understand some of the problems until we get to know the people relatively well. That was our experience after we entered the urban public education arena by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School in 2004. Some of us quickly began to realize that we had only had a peripheral awareness of the kinds of problems many of those students faced outside of school. As we got to know them better, what we learned from the day-to-day contact over time has had a significant influence on some of the directions our organization has since taken.

In my work, I consider myself fortunate to have opportunities to get to know and work with people at just about every level of society. That contact and a lot of experiences over a long period of time have resulted in a firm conviction that, for those of us who are relatively well off, getting to know individuals in circumstances very different from our own will enable us not only to gain a more accurate awareness of the issues they face, but also to be in a better position to develop or support lasting solutions to some of the problems.

If nothing else, knowing such individuals reasonably well tends to make us less judgmental and at times intensely aware that we don’t know everything or have all the answers.