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.

More evidence of the importance of non-cognitive skill development in young children

In a July 24, 2015 Opinionator piece published by the New York Times, David Borenstein reported on the findings of a major study by researchers from Penn State and Duke University that had been designed to understand how children develop healthy social skills.

The study tracked 753 children whose social and communication skills had been assessed by 50 kindergarten teachers across three geographic areas in the early 1990s to see what had happened to the students 13 to 19 years later.

As it turns out, the assessments in kindergarten predicted the likelihood of “whether the children would graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; whether they would live in public housing or receive public assistance; whether they would be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults. The kindergarten teacher’s scores also correlated with the number of arrests a young adult would have for severe offenses by age 25.”

“One major result: Children who scored high on social skills were four times as likely to graduate from college as those who scored low.”

Borenstein points out that “These studies suggest that if we want many more children to lead fulfilling and productive lives, it’s not enough for schools to focus exclusively on academics. Indeed, one of the most powerful and cost-effective interventions is to help children develop core social and emotional strengths like self-management, self-awareness and social awareness – strengths that are necessary for students to fully benefit from their education and succeed in many other areas of life.”

The findings of this study are consistent with those mentioned in a 2012 essay titled “Promoting Social Mobility” by James J. Heckman, published in the Sept./Oct. 2012 issue of Boston Review. Heckman writes, “An emerging literature confirms the common sense idea that success in life depends on much more than smarts. Non-cognitive abilities – including strength of motivation, an ability to act on long range plans, and the socio-emotional regulation needed to work with others – also have a large impact on earnings, employment, labor force experience, college attendance, teen pregnancy…and participation in crime.”

“….both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment…..A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families…..and that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.”

“…Early interventions can improve cognitive as well as socio-emotional skills. They promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity, and reduce teenage pregnancy…”

Heckman notes that programs that target the early years seem to have the greatest promise. These include Nurse-Family Partnership (which Goodwill is implementing in parts of Indiana). “Programs with home visits (like NFP) affect the lives of the parents and create a permanent change in the home environment that supports the child after center-based interventions end.”

One randomized controlled trial of families that participated in Nurse-Family Partnership showed that NFP children had 67% fewer behavioral and cognitive problems at age 6 than children in a control group.

The two-generation approach practiced by Nurse-Family Partnership benefits the entire family in numerous demonstrable ways. For example, Goodwill’s implementation of NFP is resulting in an increase in earned income in 33% of participating households. In addition, among parents with less than 12 years of education at enrollment, 59% have increased their education attainment level as measured one year post-enrollment in NFP.

There’s a growing amount of solid evidence that investments in high quality early childhood development programs generate substantial benefits to society as well as to the participating children. Those programs, such as NFP, that also include wraparound services for other family members yield even greater benefits and, if scaled sufficiently, can go a long way toward reducing generational poverty and a lot of the social problems that accompany it.

On Lifelong Learning

Jim McClelland shares a laugh with a graduate of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

When I was 17, I thought I knew a lot. Throughout my adult life, though, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve realized how little I know. I figure if that process continues long enough I will eventually reach the logical conclusion that I know absolutely nothing. (I realize that just confirms what some of you have always thought….)

Nevertheless, I don’t think we can overemphasize the importance of being a lifelong learner. This is particularly true for anyone who works or wants to work, as changes occur at such a rapid rate we have to keep learning just to stay current in whatever field we’re in or, in many cases, be employable at all.

I’ve had the same title at Goodwill for forty years, but the work I do today is vastly different from what it was even a few years ago. In part, the changes in what I do and how I go about my work are reflections of how we have adapted to enormous changes that have taken place over the years in demographics, technology, the economy, competition, laws and regulations, and American culture. Goodwill has also changed in response to what we’ve learned from our own experiences, from the experiences of others, and from research. And we’ve changed as a result of the different perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills of people who have become part of our organization and caused us to question old assumptions, ask different questions, and consider new approaches.

From a personal standpoint, I have learned an enormous amount over the years from being in a position to work with people at nearly every level of society and in all parts of a community. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a lot of people at national and international levels, try to understand their experiences and perspectives, and learn from them. The variety is tremendously appealing to me, and having those experiences has caused me to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have all the answers.

I also read a lot. I read to stay current with what’s going on in the world and in my community. I read in hopes of learning something that will help me do a better job or be a better person. I read for insights and to learn about topics I’m interested in. And sometimes I read simply for pleasure and no other purpose.

My regular reading includes publications with different perspectives, as I do not want to confine myself to being exposed only to the thoughts and opinions of those who have one particular point of view. Gary Hamel’s book, Leading the Revolution, (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) reinforced my desire to try to understand and learn from people with different experiences and perspectives. My notes on that book include:

  • Most people in an industry are blind in the same way. They’re all paying attention to the same things and not paying attention to the same things.
  • Insights come from new conversations. All too often, strategy conversations in large companies have the same ten people talking to the same ten people for the fifth year in a row. They can finish each other’s sentences. You’re not going to learn anything new in this setting.
  • There is so much individuals cannot imagine simply because they are prisoners of their own dogma.
  • The more you pay attention to information that supports your world view, the less you learn.
  • You can’t use an old map to find a new land.

While Hamel was writing primarily for leaders in business and industry, perhaps his admonitions could also be helpful in other aspects of a society that has become dismayingly polarized over many issues.

On the Importance of High Expectations

In recent weeks, I’ve become acquainted with three Excel Center students who have received or will soon receive their high school diplomas. All three of these young adults have disabilities, were in “special education” during their childhoods, and failed to graduate from the large public high schools they attended. One of the three had tried in three different large high schools, but the results were always the same.

Yet, at the three different Excel Centers these students attended, all of them succeeded. They earned the credits they needed for a Core 40 diploma and passed the End-of-Course Assessments required by the State of Indiana. In addition, two of them have already earned post-secondary credentials that increase their employability and earning potential.

What made the difference?

As I’ve asked several members of our staff that question, two themes emerge. First, there are a lot of people who simply don’t expect much from a student labeled “special education.” Many times, such students aren’t challenged, and it’s often difficult for a large high school to provide the kind of individual attention that can sometimes help a student rise above generally low expectations and begin to realize his or her potential.

The second theme is that the small size and structure of The Excel Center; the team approach taken by the teachers, life coaches, and other staff; and the individual help that is readily available in each Excel Center are just what many “special ed” students need to make the most of their potential.

In addition, we believe our students can succeed, and we expect them to do so. Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of young people and adults who rose above the low expectations of others to accomplish what many might not have thought possible. One of the early graduates of the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School Goodwill started ten years ago is a good example. A “special education” student, his parents didn’t think he’d ever earn a high school diploma. He proved them wrong, went on to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and is now employed by that college.

More recently, I saw a letter written by a 2014 graduate of Indy Met. In it, she describes how she had been ready to drop out of the large high school she previously attended. Her parents even expected her to do so. But, at Indy Met the teachers had more faith in her than she had in herself. As she stated, “Without Indy Met’s amazingly supportive staff, I would have given up a long time ago.” As it is, she’s enrolled in college and will begin taking classes this summer.

Far too many of the people we see every day have seldom had anyone who believed they had much potential. And if no one else has confidence in you, it can be very hard for you to have confidence in yourself. Failure can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our work, we must be able to see the potential in every person and do everything we can to help them realize that potential. We won’t always succeed. But with the right kind of help over a sustained period of time, a lot of people will rise above their circumstances and accomplish far more than many others ever thought possible – and often, even more than they thought themselves capable of.

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, 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.