Texas needs a new approach to poverty

Photo by Joe Lencioni

In a state that prides itself on being first and best at everything, the findings from the latest report on Texas children should be intolerable. According to the 2016 State of Texas Children Report, issued by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Texas ranked a dismal 41st among all states in child well-being. With 25 percent of Texas children living in poverty, our state needs to embrace an entirely new approach to child well-being because what we've been doing clearly doesn't work.

New research on lifting families from poverty suggests that the key is to help both the children and the parents together. Led by Ascend at the Aspen Institute and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, this "two-generation approach" recognizes that children cannot get out of poverty by themselves. Well-designed programs that help both children and their parents by offering opportunity-rich environments for children, plus education and employment pathways for parents are showing strong results as a more effective way to lift children and families out of poverty. Texas needs to find ways to promote collaborations between nonprofits focused on each group, so together they can improve conditions for everyone.

While two-generation efforts are beginning to develop in Austin and other Texas cities, this model is already working for our neighbors in Oklahoma. Community Action Project Tulsa is at the forefront of two-generation programming to help break the cycle of poverty. Linking high-quality early education for young children with workforce training, postsecondary education and parenting programs, the project creates a community of families who are learning and succeeding together. Their CareerAdvance program offers job training in the health care industry for parents, addressing and removing traditional barriers such as childcare, transportation and costs for books. Career coaches and peer support help participants stay connected and motivated. Initial results show that parents who complete each stage of the program have increased their income and are motivated to be better role models for their children.

Nonprofits do not necessarily have to expand their scope to move ahead with a two-generation strategy; indeed, this is most effective as a partnership between organizations. At ChildCareGroup, the nonprofit I run, we're cultivating partnerships with groups that can help the parents of the low-income children we serve. For example, for years we've addressed the full range of health needs of the children in our early childhood centers, but we had never asked parents about their own health issues. Have they had a screening lately? Do they have a doctor, clinic or other place they regularly go for health care? Parents with untreated health issues cannot be fully engaged in their family's overall wellbeing. So we partnered with Foremost Family Health Clinics to ensure that parents of the children we work with have access to screenings and health services. We are actively developing additional partnerships with other organizations that share our two-generation philosophy.

Some may ask what's new about the two-generation approach, since programs serving both children and parents have existed for decades. The new difference is that the two-generation approach emphasizes the needs of the entire family and closely coordinates programs, sometimes assigning mentors, career coaches or family advocates to support each family and help them with their individual challenges.

There is no easy path out of poverty. Families have challenges and setbacks, and in some cases it may take years to see long-term success. Still, there are encouraging examples of real progress in using a two-generation approach to lift families out of poverty. While the two-generation model is still new, the evidence from programs in Tulsa and elsewhere is promising; children do better when their parents do better, and when families succeed, communities thrive.

For years, Texas has lagged in helping its poorest children achieve their fullest potential, Let's try an integrated, two generation approach to improving the well-being of Texas children and their parents.

Our future — and theirs — depends on it.

Tori Mannes

President and CEO, ChildCareGroup