Obama, here's how to help the poor: Educate both parents and their children

In his State of the Union address, President Obama touted ways to improve education and the economy. One solution – with a proven record of success – didn't make it into the speech: a two-generation strategy to educate families and bring them out of poverty.

AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Poo
President Obama delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 24. Mr. Obama touted ways to improve education and boost the American economy. But most education programs for the poor are aimed at helping either parents or children – but not both together in a coordinated way.

It’s no surprise that President Obama spent much of his State of the Union address Tuesday night tackling two of the most critical problems facing our nation: the weak economy and dwindling access to education. He devoted plenty of rhetorical energy to convincing the American people that he has big ideas for improving these thoroughly intertwined challenges. 

But one proven solution that didn’t make it into his speech is far under the radar of most politicians, policy wonks, and pundits: a two-generation strategy to educate families and bring them out of poverty. Simply put, this means programs that educate poor Americans by providing services that empower both children and adults.

For too long the United States has bifurcated social services, as if individuals aren’t rooted in families, just because they happen not to live like the Huxtables. Many government and privately funded programs provide subsidized daycare, but do little to help mothers find and keep jobs. Some provide job training, without addressing the mammoth challenge parents face of finding reliable and affordable daycare.

In not serving the whole family unit – whatever it looks like – America not only fails the poor, but perpetuates cycles of poverty that strain the wellbeing of our entire economy.

America should be focused on equipping its most vulnerable citizens with the tools necessary for economic mobility. And those vulnerable citizens are invariably children and single mothers. Though the strained economy has been hard on Americans across the board, a whopping 40.7 percent of single parent households are struggling below the poverty line – the majority being single-mother households.

Further, these inequities fall along deep racial lines. In 2010, 47.6 percent of black and 50.3 percent of Hispanic single-mother families lived in poverty, compared with 32.7 percent of white and 30.1 percent of Asian single-mother families. These concentrations of poverty, the result of centuries of structural and even strategic racism, demand structural and strategic solutions.

Despite endless hand-wringing about the stubborn grip of poverty, solutions do exist. Quality early education and parents’ educational attainment are among the best predictors of economic mobility. This all adds up to a fairly intuitive and still little acknowledged approach: educate young children and their single mothers simultaneously and you create a real possibility for systemic change.

Programs operating with this philosophy have been popping up throughout the country for the last couple of decades, largely unnoticed. The Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit organization that receives a combination of foundation, corporate, and private funding, first started in Minneapolis in 1998 with a mission of eradicating poverty. After much deliberation, the program adopted a model to serve single mothers. They are given free housing. (Women pay 30 percent of their income for rent, which averages $135 per month). And they get life skills and job training while their children are given early education opportunities – all over a two- to three-year period.

The success is startling. Women apply and enter the program earning an average of $8.39 an hour and leave with career-track employment, earning an average livable wage of $15-16 an hour. Ninety percent of program graduates maintain consistent employment, and 55 percent go on to obtain a four-year degree. Ninety-five percent of alumnae mothers report that their children are performing at or above grade level. Jeremiah Program’s goal is to have a presence in 12 cities by 2020.

How expensive is it to get these kinds of results? Jeremiah Program’s cost per family is approximately $25,000 annually. That may sound like a lot, until one considers the alternatives. This same population – without a comprehensive, two-generation approach – is typically served piecemeal and at considerable cost to the public.

A poor, single mother and her child are often likely to utilize, for example, out-of-home placement (foster care, temporary guardianships) and chemical dependency treatment. They are also often likely to have encounters with the criminal justice system, require emergency room service, and need ongoing welfare support. In addition to being punitive and largely unsuccessful in breaking cycles of poverty, this kind of scatter shot government intervention is estimated to cost as much as $98,000 per family annually. That means that taxpayers save $6 for every one invested in Jeremiah families.

Similar success stories and program costs are demonstrated by organizations like Keys to Degrees in Beverly, Mass., and Career Advance in Tulsa, Okla.

Ascend, the family economic security program at the Aspen Institute, recently commissioned a study by Lake Research Partners to find out what single parents, again mostly mothers, themselves want and need. Parents surveyed in five different cities attested that they knew education was the key to uplift – both for their children and for themselves – and they liked the idea of programs that addressed their entire family. Though some did express ambivalence about residential approaches, which might feel isolating, there was an overall sense that single mothers, especially, want opportunities that educate multiple generations.

Though much hay has been made about the fact that Americans are facing the first time in history when the majority of parents are not confident that their kids will be “better off” than they are, there is one beautiful exception. Single mothers, when surveyed by Lake Research Partners, still believed that their kids had a chance at something better. One African American single mother in Detroit described her simple dream for her family: “A secure life, like for my children to have something that they can start with, but I think a lot of times we don’t have anything to start with.”

Programs that operate with an enlightened two-generation approach to eradicating poverty – educating parents and their children in a coordinated, supportive program – are just that: something to start with. As the presidential election season revs up, let’s remind the candidates that it is interventions like these – proven and profound – that will really make a difference in the quality of our citizens’ lives.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” in addition to four other books, and a speaker. Learn more about her at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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