10/07/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Connecting the Dots to Lift Families Out of Poverty

The most recent U.S. Census data on poverty shows that we are still deeply engaged in the "War on Poverty." Moreover, because the economic turnaround has been slower than predicted for almost everyone, we find in the data that the lack of recovery is increasingly having a negative impact on our nation's children.

In 2012, 15 percent of all Americans lived in poverty -- a number virtually unchanged from the year prior. That equates to 46.5 million people in the United States living at or below the federal poverty line. Critically, 22 percent of children -- more than one in every five -- a total of 16.1 million boys and girls, are living there, too. This dynamic is no coincidence, however -- it is further evidence that the generational cycle of poverty remains inescapable for many.

Child poverty increased by more than 5 percent from 2000 to 2012, and includes 32 percent of Hispanic children living in poverty. We know that half of these children will spend more than half of their lives in poverty, despite a host of supports and assistance from programs designed, in theory, to break the cycle and lift them out of poverty.

This chilling indicator tells us that, at the rate our nation is headed, the record high child poverty levels of today will result in record high poverty levels for all Americans in the future.

As a nation, we have persistently attempted to alleviate, and even eliminate, poverty. But the census numbers show us we are hardly closer to solving the complex puzzle of poverty than we were when we started. Federal, state and local governments have invested billions through a connected network of health and human services programs. The private sector has worked tirelessly to partner with state and federal systems, investing billions to provide that added boost of capacity-building, job creation and a myriad of other approaches to strengthening families.

But the numbers from 2012 tell us that what we are doing simply isn't enough. Families of color are still fairing worse than their white counterparts. Single-mother homes are four times more likely to be in poverty than married-couple homes. We know where to target our work to have the greatest impact, but something's still not working.

Perhaps the reason is that we've built a system of public supports with unintended consequences. Instead of bridges out of poverty, families continuously encounter barriers to economic stability and security based upon their income and assets.

Why would a mother who had just completed a financial literacy class touting the benefits of asset building, begin to save for her newborn child's college education when saving that $20 or $50 a month would soon place her above the low asset limits of a program like TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families), causing her to lose hundreds of dollars she desperately needs to feed her family? Or why would a young high school dropout complete workforce training to increase his or her skill level and, therefore, wages, that would then place him or her above income limits to receive much-needed child care subsidies?

At the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we are tackling these issues head on to help families find a better way to have the assets they need. We are working with a network of community partners to help families gain sufficient income, assets and financial capability to handle ongoing basic expenses -- like housing, food and child care -- that are becoming more expensive every year. Like all families, those trying to break the stranglehold of intergenerational poverty need to have enough saved to cover three months of expenses. Ongoing financial strength for families like these lies in having the knowledge and skills to manage debt and build and protect assets from financial predators.

Additionally, staying out of poverty becomes possible through quality jobs with health care, retirement benefits and job advancement opportunities that provide a steady income and allow them to build assets. Community colleges are stepping up to the plate in a big way to provide wraparound supports. They know that for a young mother to earn a two-year degree or career certification she needs quality child care, transportation and resources to meet basic needs. We have to think holistically about families. We need innovations and ideas that help two generations of a family grow and learn together.

Thanks to our grantee partners, we are learning a lot in this area. A Massachusetts program called Roca, which means "rock" in Spanish, has launched a two-generation approach to break the cycle of poverty for young single mothers. Roca works with young mothers who were formerly involved in gangs, drugs or alcohol and those who have been traumatized by domestic violence or ongoing abuse and neglect, find the pathway out of that lifestyle for themselves and their children. Roca takes these young mothers who would otherwise be considered "high risk" and unemployable, and equips them with parenting and job skills.

The journey out of poverty doesn't happen in a moment. It happens over time. We can't rely on either/or answers any more. We have to think in terms of two-generations -- connected families who need both/and solutions. We have to do a much better job of connecting the dots to propel families out of the cycle of poverty.

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