Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed a "War on Poverty," President Obama in his State of the Union address made a bold recommitment to ensuring that Americans' ability to get ahead is determined by hard work and ambition, not by the circumstances of our birth.
For the millions of American families living in a perpetual state of economic insecurity, either in poverty or on the brink of poverty, these words offer a glimmer of hope. But do we have the political will to translate those words into action?
Over the past 50 years, we have seen what does work when we summon the political will. We have seen women and men start to get back on their feet with supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicare, and Medicaid. We have seen children graduate from strong Head Start programs and use their education to succeed. But we have also seen that government programs alone cannot break the cycle of poverty. As the president said in his State of the Union address, it takes partnerships at all levels (community, state, national) and with all walks of society (business, philanthropy, research, families themselves) to create paths to opportunity.
The good news is that we are building not only upon the lessons of the past 50 years but upon incredible people power -- especially the growing economic power of women. People who are struggling to move toward stability, especially young parents, are resilient. They are passionate about being self-sufficient. Despite the lack of family-friendly workplace policies and quality preschools, these young mothers and fathers remain determined to give their children the education and skills they need to be successful in life. And they know education is essential in today's economy. As a Richmond, Virginia, mother told us in bipartisan focus groups last year, "If our kids don't go to college, they really don't have any hope."
A two-generation approach to creating a cycle of opportunity builds on the lessons from 50 years of progress, programs, and passion. It reflects the tremendous energy of parents wanting to do more for their children. As importantly, it taps into that drive for success that both President Obama and Republican representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers praised in their remarks. A two-generation approach offers parents and their children the opportunity to succeed together. Its four critical elements -- education, economic supports, social capital and health -- capture the dreams of parents and provide a substantive scaffold so that families can get ahead and stay ahead.
This is a movement that is already taking hold in communities across the nation:
- In the Twin Cities, Jeremiah Program provides housing to single mothers and their children, who are enrolled in on-site early childhood education. Their mothers must be enrolled in a college degree program and work part-time, and they receive job and life skills counseling.
- In Tulsa, Oklahoma, parents of children enrolled in the Community Action Program's (CAP Tulsa) Head Start and Early Head Start sites have the opportunity to get degrees in healthcare -- from nursing and lab technology -- for free. Healthcare is a sector CAP Tulsa leaders know is in demand, so parents graduate with living-wage job opportunities.
A key ingredient here is social capital -- those interactions and trusted relationships that form the connective tissue of our lives. Connecting people to each other and to institutions can unleash access to jobs, child care, even home ownership, and can let neighbors, colleagues, and fellow students become links to opportunities.
It is a movement that, in the spirit of 21st-century success, is collaborative -- not punitive or prescriptive. By building on the assets low-income mothers and fathers bring to the table today, we can create policies that address their needs and those of their children simultaneously.
Fifty years out, the nation is reflecting on more than the programs set forth by President Johnson's proclamation of a "War on Poverty." We are also reflecting upon our commitment (and President Obama's commitment) to helping those Americans who, for an array of reasons, are struggling to rise to the middle class. Many are women and children, and all are caught in the grip of economic insecurity.
We can all step up to the plate and make a permanent path forward for young children and their parents. The president's work on early childhood is a strong start, but as partners we can do more:
- Find more ways to engage parents in Head Start and the new Race to the Top for pre-Kindergarten.
- Ensure that student-parents who are struggling to achieve their educations have access to financial aid that recognizes their unique schedules and needs.
- Just as the president required federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour, we should require those federal contractors to support working women and men through pay equity, paid sick days, and quality child care.
We have so much to build on from the research and momentum around proven economic mobility levers like early education and postsecondary education and training. Now is the time to weave what we know works with new partnerships to push for better results and more effective use of resources.