A New, Two Generation Approach to Fighting Poverty

The photograph on the front page of the Sept. 25th Maine Sunday Telegram was heart wrenching – a darling 5-year-old girl named Arianna standing outside of her “home” – a makeshift tent in the woods near Portland.

More than 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” poverty remains a reality for millions of Americans who struggle to find the resources they need for the basic necessities of life. Since then, the federal government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on programs to combat poverty, yet the poverty rate has barely budged.

In 1966, the poverty rate was 14.7 percent. Just this month, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the poverty rate for 2015 was 13.5 percent. That is actually one percentage point higher than the year before the start of the 2008 Great Recession.

Here in Maine, the poverty rate stands at 13.4 percent, just slightly below the national rate. In our state, and across the country, poverty spans rural towns and urban centers, race and ethnicity, men and women, old and young. It diminishes the chances of a bright future for far too many of our children.

Despite our good intentions and despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars, we have made very limited progress in lifting families out of poverty. It is time to recognize that the federal government's current approach to poverty is disjointed and often ignores the very nature of a family. Federal programs have failed to achieve their promise of breaking the cycle of poverty that has trapped too many families. We should not accept such outcomes here in this land of opportunity.

It is time for a new approach. I recently co-authored the bipartisan Two-Generation Economic Empowerment Act with my colleague, Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, which would address the gap between our good intentions as a society and the ineffective results. Our bill would equip both parents and their children with the tools that they need to succeed and become self-sufficient. It marks an important first step toward reevaluating our approach to poverty-reducing programs and promoting innovative, more effective uses of tax dollars.

This multigenerational method has been successfully used by York County Community Action Corporation (YCCAC) to help entire families achieve a sustainable income, safe housing, and reliable employment. For example, a few years ago, YCCAC’s outreach workers utilized this holistic approach to help a homeless family attain economic stability and, ultimately, purchase their own home. YCCAC was able to achieve this positive outcome by helping both parents secure employment, placing their children in Head Start and after-school programs, and providing educational resources and support.

The legislation Senator Heinrich and I introduced would help promote other effective programs like YCCAC’s. Our bill would authorize a five-state pilot program to provide additional flexibility for states and local governments to improve the administration of programs using two-generation models. The Two-Generation Act would also create an advisory group on multigenerational poverty to coordinate efforts across federal agencies aimed at supporting vulnerable families and to make recommendations to Congress on ways to improve coordination of anti-poverty programs. Finally, our bill would incentivize public-private partnerships to harness philanthropic and private-sector investments to implement proven social programs.

The rest of Arianna’s story shows that these partnerships and local initiatives can make all the difference. Thanks to the involvement of a Maine social worker and the Maine Homeless Veterans Alliance, who were committed to keeping the family together, her story, fortunately, has a happy ending. Arianna and her mother now live in an apartment in Auburn, and she has finally started kindergarten.

The well-being of children like Arianna is closely linked to the well-being of their parents. I recently chaired a hearing that examined whether there is a better way to provide housing assistance to vulnerable families and individuals. Our expert witnesses pointed out that the single biggest predictor of a child’s opportunities, and even that child’s life expectancy, is the ZIP code of the community where the child grows up.

Just as a child’s ZIP code should not determine his or her future success, neither should the bureaucratic approach to poverty make it so difficult for families to get the help they need to escape intergenerational poverty. We don't want more cases where a 5-year-old girl is living in a make-shift tent outside of the largest city in our state. Fifty years from now, our century-old War on Poverty must no longer be a stalemate, but a victory. Acting today, we can help multiple generations be full participants in the American dream.