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Does 1+1 = 3? What Research Tells Us About the Potential of Two-Generation Approaches

November 15, 2013 09:52 AM

By Nicole Fauteux

“Are parents increasing their education levels and employment when their children are randomly assigned to Head Start? Yes,” said P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale of Northwestern University, one of four presenters on a panel of researchers who shared their findings on two-generation approaches to improving children’s well-being and their parents’ economic prospects. 

Two-generation programs are designed to benefit children through interventions directed at their parents and vice versa.  Examples include programs that intentionally link education, job training, income subsidies and asset building for low-income parents with high-quality early childhood education for young children.

“Two-generation policies recognize parents’ dual role as providers and nurturers,” said Carolyn Heinrich of the University of Texas at Austin. She talked about the tensions between care giving activities such as breastfeeding during the first year of life and working outside the home to generate the income families need to invest in children over the long run.  “We want policies that support the positive effects of parental employment and minimize the negative effects,” she told the audience.

Heinrich noted that according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is one of only four countries that do not have a policy of paid parental leave. Heinrich pointed out that these policies do exist here, but that those workers with the lowest incomes are least likely to have access to leave.

The panelists presented four papers that examine the current evidence for two-generation approaches, noting that while strong theoretical evidence undergirds many two-generation interventions, empirical evidence for this approach lags behind.

Greg J. Duncan of the University of California, Irvine, summarized the evidence on efforts to improve child development by boosting family incomes. The U.S. Negative Income Tax Experiments conducted in the 1970s provide the largest randomized test of whether increasing family income increases school achievement and attainment.  Duncan reported that two of three sites studied found significant achievement gains for children in elementary school but no achievement gains for adolescents. The impacts on educational attainment were more uniformly positive, with half a year of completed schooling gained on average.

Duncan believes the timing and targeting of two-generation interventions may be key to their success. He pointed out that the Work to Welfare policies of the 1990s had negative effects on adolescents who were often enlisted to care for younger siblings when their parents entered the workforce.

Another area for intervention is asset policy. Research shows that increasing family assets provides a cushion, reduces parental stress and helps parents invest in their children. Presenter Trina Shanks of the University of Michigan pointed out that asset inequality is far higher than income inequality in the United States, and that parental net worth is a significant predictor of children’s educational attainment and net worth as young adults.

Shanks reviewed several demonstration projects that encouraged homeownership, saving for college, and other ways of building family assets. She noted that the most successful programs used automatic enrollment to equalize asset building, but stated that more evidence will be needed to determine whether these programs improve child well-being.

Discussant Nisha Patel of The Aspen Institute noted that this is the third year she has participated in an APPAM discussion of two-generation approaches and the crowd keeps growing – a good sign future research on this topic will be forthcoming. 

The papers presented by the panel will appear in the spring 2014 issue of The Future of Children.


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