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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Goodwill and Politics

During my career, which now spans four decades, there have been leaders from both major political parties at various times at local, state, and national levels. We’ve worked well with both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Goodwill is fortunate to have a mission that transcends politics and has appeal across political lines. Our employees, members of our boards of directors, donors, shoppers, students, and others we assist have political leanings that cover the entire spectrum. However, as we go about our work, we tend toward the practical rather than the ideological. We agree on a goal, find common ground around the means to achieve the goal, work together, and accomplish a lot. We’re mainly interested in what works – as long as the means are consistent with our values and basic principles, some of which are:

• Every individual has value, and we strive to treat everyone in a respectful manner.
• Work adds meaning and purpose to life.
• Goodwill offers opportunities, not charity, and fosters development, not dependency.

Opportunities we offer include employment for people who have had limited options because of a disability or other barrier. We also offer opportunities through our Excel Centers for adults who want to earn a high school diploma and begin work on a post-secondary credential that will enhance their employment options.

During the recession of the early 1980’s, we concluded that nothing would help our organization or the people we assist more than a strong, growing economy. That continues to be the case. Also, it seems to us that the better we develop the potential of our people – especially by increasing education attainment levels – and provide conditions that enable people to productively use their talents, the stronger the economy is likely to be.

As our organization has evolved, on numerous occasions we’ve redeployed resources from efforts that were marginally effective to initiatives that showed more promise. Over time, this shifting of resources, combined with a substantial increase in our pool of talented people – our human capital – has enabled the organization overall to grow not only in size, but in long term impact.

Unfortunately, over the last forty years, we’ve seen in our society negative trends in a lot of social indicators, including poverty rates, education attainment levels, incarceration rates, and a lot of health-related issues, despite a lot of well-intentioned programs that have cost enormous amounts of money (see my July 6, 2011 post). Fortunately, there have also been a few programs that randomized controlled trials have shown to be highly effective in preventing problems and developing potential. One of those is Nurse-Family Partnership, which Goodwill is implementing in Indianapolis.

In the face of massive federal deficits, it would seem reasonable to reduce or eliminate funding for programs with marginal effectiveness and increase support for evidence-based programs that produce significant long term impact. The future economic and social benefits could be enormous.

Reasonable people can and will disagree over many things, including how best to reduce social problems and generate a higher rate of growth in the economy. However, in the face of such disagreements, reasonable people must try to find common ground and not allow their view of the perfect to be the enemy of the good. My hope is that enough of our elected leaders in both major political parties would resolve to overcome and move beyond a toxic political atmosphere and resulting gridlock that have been preventing steps that might lead to a stronger, healthier, more civil and economically vibrant society that would benefit all citizens, including those we assist at Goodwill.