Transforming Human Services For The 21st Century

When Governor John Hickenlooper took office in 2011, millions of families across the country were still suffering the effects of the recession. In a state not historically associated with high rates of poverty, Colorado's child poverty rate was growing faster than any other state in the country.

In a 21st century economy, Colorado and other states needed to help families find new ways to move out of poverty. The growing child poverty rate inspired our efforts to pursue a new course.

One in six children were living in poverty. That was unacceptable. It meant that more than a quarter of our children were living in a family where no adult likely had full-time employment. The family probably relied on food banks or federal food assistance for their dinner. The child's physical and educational development were likely at risk.

To address this bleak reality, I and my staff at the Colorado Department of Human Services, working with the governor, lawmakers and other partners, developed a strategy to provide strong supports to both generations simultaneously. We would address the immediate needs of vulnerable children and their parents together, while creating opportunities to help lift families out of poverty.

This two-generation approach might seem like common sense, but many traditional early childhood interventions tend to address the symptoms of poverty, rather than the causes. Services are delivered piecemeal: if a child goes to school hungry, they get a free lunch. The child's health and development are separate matters. The parents, who likely have a low-wage job or no job at all, are not an immediate part of the equation.

Under our comprehensive approach, our goal is to feed the hungry child, and focus on their overall health, development, school readiness and educational success. At the same time, we will address the parents' immediate circumstances and longer-term economic stability.

Through our new Office of Early Childhood, we are redesigning and refocusing early childhood services in Colorado and improving access for young children and their families. To ensure that our children have access to high-quality child care, which will significantly improve their lives and the lives of their parents, we are building a high-quality child care system that includes training for child care workers, many of whom are low-income mothers themselves.

We are ramping up our jobs programs, helping parents train for and obtain employment with the goal of attaining economic security. We are also assisting unemployed non-custodial parents with jobs, job training and counseling, teaching them to pay their child support bills and to engage with their children.

Our early childhood and child welfare programs together are focusing on children's health, safety and development and on training young mothers to be good parents.

Through the Aspen Institute Ascend Fund, I have worked with my partner in Washington D.C., Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) President Andrea Levere, to explore a statewide financial education initiative to help low-income children save for college and to help their families build assets for the future.

Underlying our policies, programs and success thus far are our strong community partners, including counties and philanthropic organizations, without whom our efforts could not flourish.

I am happy to report that the growth in Colorado's child poverty rate has begun to slow from recession days, thanks in part to the economic rebound. Long-term, we believe the two-generation effort will prove to be a smarter, more effective strategy, guiding our policy and spending choices and producing a greater return on taxpayer investment. By elevating children and parents together, this simple yet powerful approach has the potential to revitalize communities and build a stronger Colorado.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the latter of which is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. The series is being produced in conjunction with the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Inaugural Fellowship. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about Ascend at the Aspen Institute, click here.