A few years ago, Vanesa Mares couldn't have imagined going to college to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse. The Oklahoma mother lived with her mom and two young children and feared landing in the same trap of student loans that her mother still contended with. She also needed a safe, reliable place to leave her kids when she was in school.
Now the 23-year-old is a patient-care technician on her way to realizing her dream, and her kids, ages 5 and 7, started elementary school ready to learn. The entire family has benefitted from programs at Community Action Project of Tulsa, a nonprofit that offers Head Start, child care and job-training and educational opportunities for parents to help break the cycle of poverty.
Millions of America's low-income families with young children face similar obstacles to opportunity, with little hope of overcoming them. Why? Our efforts to address child and family poverty often fail to recognize that kids do not live in a vacuum. Their success depends on their family's ability to meet their needs, whether that's a refrigerator with nutritious foods or an enriching child care environment that encourages their developing minds to soar.
But many of our programs and policies intended to improve opportunity and prospects for children ignore the bigger family picture. We zero in on a child's educational needs, for example, without taking into account the challenges his or her parents face in getting a job that pays enough to properly support a family, which in turn affect their kids' chances of succeeding in school and beyond.
It's time we changed that narrow focus. Indeed, with nearly half of our young children living in families who struggle to make ends meet, we cannot afford to do otherwise: Our very future as a nation rests on the promise and potential of all children of the next generation, not just the privileged few.
A new strategy is emerging that recognizes the importance of creating opportunity for the entire family, coordinating programs and policies so that parents and children have a chance to succeed -- together.
Such efforts, sometimes described as two-generation approaches, aim to equip parents with the tools, education and skills required to meet employers' needs and get jobs that allow them to better support their children in every way. At the same time, these efforts focus on ensuring their kids are in child care and school settings that foster healthy development and, eventually, academic achievement.
These approaches recognize that parents with no higher degree than a high school diploma -- true for nearly 80 percent of low-income parents with young children -- have dim prospects in today's economy. They consider the reality that parents forced to cobble together several jobs with erratic hours and no time off are inherently hard-pressed to be everything their kids need them to be at home. And they acknowledge that their kids, lacking opportunities to reach greater heights, are very likely to follow in their constricted footsteps.
Recognizing this, several states -- including Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Washington -- along with organizations across the country such as CAP Tulsa, are developing promising strategies to change the way they address the needs of low-income families.
In New York, the nonprofit Educational Alliance has expanded its reach beyond providing Head Start to include help for parents to go or return to college so they can get the education to compete for better-paying jobs. In southwest Atlanta, an educational campus that offers high-quality child care and elementary education also connects parents to a neighboring job-training and employment center that helps adults build solid careers.
But a community-based nonprofit can only do so much when its funding comes with tight strings attached. We have to get much smarter about the money we already invest in helping families to move out of poverty. States and nonprofits need flexible funding options so their programs can simultaneously address the needs of kids and their parents.
We should also remove unnecessary obstacles to critical family programs, such as complicated, time-consuming processes to apply for children's health insurance or food assistance. For many parents trying to do better by their children, this focus on the whole family is their best chance for achieving stability and, ultimately, for their children to thrive.
This isn't a call to simply throw more money at a problem. All sectors must get smarter with existing resources and invest in strategies that produce the greatest returns -- to both reduce family poverty and build a strong foundation for children. All of us needed help along the way. Kids in low-income families can climb the ladder to opportunity when their parents are able to hold it steady.
The Foundation recently released a KIDS COUNT policy report: Creating Opportunity for Families: A Two-Generation Approach.