We Need a Two-Generation Approach to End Child Poverty

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We Need a Two-Generation Approach to End Child Poverty

By Lori Pfingst, research and policy director, & Elena Hernandez, policy analyst - November 25, 2015

No matter what indicator of child well-being you choose to focus on, it is almost without fail that children from low-income backgrounds are doing worse on it. When children do not have their basic needs met – even for a short period of time – it affects their brain development, the strength of their relationships, their ability to learn and perform in school, and their physical and mental health. So it goes without saying that the economic security of parents is inextricably tied to the well-being of their children. Indeed, family economic security is a precondition for a child to thrive. And Washington policymakers can help create the conditions for families to do better if they consider the needs of the whole family.

In Washington state, a surprising share of our children – almost one in three – are living in families that have a hard time meeting basic needs (living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line).

Rates of Washingtonians struggling to make ends meet range from a low of 11 percent in the 41st legislative district (Mercer Island, Bellevue, Newcastle, and Lake Sammamish) and 45th legislative district (Seattle) to a high of 47 percent in the 3rd legislative district (Spokane)).

The interactive map below demonstrates these rates of economic hardship across the state. (Hover over the map for more details and also see the fact sheet here.)

That’s way too many kids who may not have enough to eat, a consistent place to sleep, or the resources to afford a trip to the doctor.  The growing research on brain science suggests that children who grow up with economic hardship are at greater risk of experiencing events that lead to levels of stress so toxic to them and their families that the impact will ripple throughout their lifetime. And if the individual impact of economic hardship on children doesn’t raise eyebrows, this statistic should: A conservative estimate of the economic costs of children who grow up in poverty is $11.7 billion per year in Washington state. 

We need to rethink child poverty in Washington state. The individual, societal, and economic costs are too great, and would surely be trumped by the benefits to reduce it. The question is – how? 

Nationally, two-generation approaches to reducing poverty – those that focus on economic success of families, as opposed to a focus on children or adults alone or in silos – are gaining momentum and showing promising results. In Colorado, Utah, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma – to name just a few states where two-generation policies and programs are being put to the test – lawmakers, agencies, and service providers are taking innovative and holistic approaches to advancing family economic security. They are doing this by coordinating across five key domains – high-quality early childhood education; post-secondary education and career pathways; asset-building; health & well-being; and social capital (see graphic).


Early investment in two-generation programs like CareerAdvance, Jeremiah Program, and Keys to Degrees are paying off. With basic needs of the family met, these programs are leading to living-wage careers for parents, better education outcomes for kids, and a low rate of return to social benefit programs.

Washington state is well-positioned to adopt a two-generation approach to reducing child and family poverty. The expansion of a high-quality early learning system for children under the Early Start Act, as well as promising career pathways for low-income parents under the Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act, are ripe for integration of two-generation programs that advance the well-being and security of families. We also have nationally recognized programs and models already in place to build off, like IBESTOpportunity Center for Employment and Education, and Head Start/ECEAP.

The evidence is as compelling as it is concrete – the benefits of reducing child poverty far outweigh the costs of the investments to make it happen. We encourage lawmakers to rethink Washington state’s approach to reducing child poverty in the upcoming legislative session.

Our Research and Policy Director, Lori Pfingst, recently gave a two-part presentation to the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee highlighting this two-generation approach for achieving family economic security in our state. Listen to the audio of her presentation here.