11/21/2014 10:34 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

Two-generation Approach to Success

It is relatively easy to convince people that children should have access to great opportunities to learn and grow. (Not so easy to get funding for those opportunities, but that's another discussion.) But when we focus on the child exclusively, we limit our effectiveness. Children live in families. Whether a family thrives or struggles, you can bet that the adults and the children are sharing a similar fate.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently issued an insightful report, Creating Opportunities for Families: A two-generation approach. You don't need to be a policy wonk to find this a compelling read. Let me share a bit of the introduction:

For many American families, every day is a juggling act involving work, child care, school and conflicting schedules. But for low-income families, the balls are more likely to fall, and the consequences can be dire when they do. A lack of reliable child care can mean fewer work hours or even a lost job. Weekly or daily shift changes require repeatedly stitching together a patchwork of care. Just getting to work is tough without dependable transportation. And for the children in these families, early educational opportunities and extracurricular activities tend to be unaffordable luxuries as parents stretch pennies to keep the lights on.

There you have it: If we want kids from low-income families to have healthy and bright futures, we need to help parents succeed. The Casey report makes some pragmatic recommendations to do just that, including supporting workforce development programs to help parents qualify for higher-wage jobs, breaking down organizational barriers that make it more difficult for families to get help and creating partnerships between child-serving agencies and programs that help adults achieve self-sufficiency.

None of this is rocket science. It goes without saying that we should be doing these things. What's stopping us is an antiquated idea that children deserve our help whereas adults are entirely responsible for their own situation. I won't debate the fairness of that assertion. (Also another discussion, and one that I have frequently.) I'll simply say that this approach to poverty has been an unmitigated failure. Programs that take the two-generation approach, however, have shown great promise.

The Casey report highlights one of my favorite programs. The MOMS Partnership reaches out to low-income mothers with mental health needs. Research shows that a parent's mental health is directly linked to children's well-being. About 90 percent of the mothers who participate in MOMS stress-reduction classes have seen a decrease in symptoms of depression. I believe that a big part of the program's success comes from the staff's commitment to the mothers themselves. These moms are not just a means to an end. They matter, independent of their children.

Those of us in the diaper bank movement are big on building a culture of kindness. When parents approach a diaper bank to seek help with their babies' basic needs, help is what they get – not judgment.

One in five children in America is growing up in poverty. Our traditional approach of focusing only on the child clearly has not succeeded. The two-generation approach is grounded in research and in that most precious and rare of commodities in public policy – common sense. We should embrace it.