State Policies through a Two-Generation Lens: Strengthening the Collective Impact of Policies that Affect the Life Course of Young Children and their Parents

Smith, Sheila; Ekono, Mercedes M.; Robbins, Taylor A.

Two-generation approaches to promoting the healthy development and school success of young children aim to enhance the well-being and life opportunities of both parents and children. This approach is based on research that shows how conditions affecting both parents and children are interrelated and play a key role in children’s development. For example, health insurance for parents matters for children’s well-being since parents’ health and mental health problems can reduce parenting capacities and the chance that young children will receive the consistent attention and stimulation they need to develop competencies that are key to school success. Similarly, children’s experience of stable, high quality early care and education supports both children’s early learning and parents’ work effort. Several innovative two-generation programs that support the well-being and life chances of both children and parents are being developed and tested. In promising initiatives around the country, including model programs in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Tulsa, Oklahoma, young children are enrolled in high quality preschool programs while their parents receive education and training in high demand jobs that help move families toward greater economic security. Leading scholars view emerging two-generation models as particularly promising because they are informed by research on components of these models that contribute to desired outcomes; these include high-quality learning experiences for children in early care and education programs and employment training for parents that helps them acquire skills needed for higher wage jobs. At a time when a new wave of two-generation programs shows promise, it is important to consider how to strengthen policies that can provide two-generation supports to large numbers of families with young children. Multiple policies affect both young children and their parents, including policies that determine safety net benefits, wages, and access to high-quality child care and health care. Consequently, two-generation supports for low-income families can best be understood by considering the collective impact of key policies on the experiences of young children and their parents. In all states, the influence of policies that collectively affect families with young children is mixed. Some policies contribute to positive two-generation supports while others are likely to detract from these supports. An example illustrates this mixed impact. In a Georgia family headed by a single mother, a young child benefits from a state-funded prekindergarten program which was found to promote children’s early learning in a recent evaluation. But this family experiences economic hardship as a result of the parent’s low-wage job and high out-of-pocket health care expenses. Georgia, like 47 other states, has not set its minimum wage at a level that would bring a family of three above the federal poverty line, and it is also one of 21 states currently opting out of the Medicaid expansion allowed under the Affordable Care Act, which provides health insurance to poor adults. Of course, many other state policies contribute to a collective two-generation impact on families. Table 1 shows a range of policy choices across the states in three areas: early care and education, health, and supports for parenting and family economic security. The table provides a view of policies’ collective two-generation impact on conditions affecting families with young children, and illustrates the value of looking at policies across multiple domains to consider their collective impact.

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National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University

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National Center for Children in Poverty
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February 22, 2019