Social Capital

“When Women Succeed, America Succeeds”

January 29, 2014  • Anne Mosle

In response to last night’s State of the Union address, Aspen Institute program directors are reacting to President Barack Obama’s promises to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the nation today. Below, Anne Mosle, the executive director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, explains why a two-generation approach to solving poverty can help President Obama reach the goals he set forth for the country. 

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama spoke five powerful words: “When women succeed, America succeeds.” In that simple statement, he captured how America can renew and deliver on a promise made 50 years ago during the launch of the War on Poverty. 

American women were woven into every aspect of the speech, from the entrepreneur who “flipped on the lights” at her tech start-up to Misty DeMars, the unemployed mother who is determinedly searching for a job. And in between, he talked about the need for pay equity, raising the minimum wage, expanding early learning, and a modern workplace that meets the needs of today’s families.  


His inspiring words conveyed respect and acknowledgement to millions of American women for their vital contribution to our economy, society, and families. But we can all do more, especially when it comes to providing opportunities for low-income parents who are struggling to move toward stability. I was proud to partner this month with Maria Shriver on The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, which examines and proposes solutions to the financial insecurity facing American women and the children who depend on them.

In my chapter, “Personal Action, Collective Impact,” I highlight the resilience of these mothers — and fathers — and their passion for being self-sufficient. They know that education is critical to their own success — and their children’s. And yet, many of the women we heard from in the bipartisan focus groups featured in the report said that financial challenges had forced them to give up their professional goals. “If we had dreams, they would probably go to our children,” one Richmond, Virginia, mother told us. 

We need modern solutions to help women strengthen their financial status, support their families, and pursue their dreams. Many of our institutions and systems have not caught up with the significant demographic shifts — and rising levels of poverty — among women in the United States. One concrete solution to help women move forward is the power of two-generation approaches, which address the needs of a mother and her child simultaneously. Communities across the nation are using these transformative approaches to power low-income women and their children up the opportunity ladder. Whether it is a Head Start site that provides job training for parents, for example, or a housing program for families with on-site high-quality early childhood education and a community college partnership, two-generation solutions are emerging as an answer for families determined to make it to America’s middle class.

President Obama highlighted some core policies we need in order to get over the finish line: paid family leave and equal pay for equal work. But we also need to equip women with tools to build social capital — trusted relationships among people and institutions that lead to better jobs and offer support in a crisis, like child care and carpools. 

In my chapter, I note the lessons we can learn from programs like Family Independence Initiative, which taps the power of people to build economic security in their own communities. We must listen to what families — mothers and fathers — say they need, and build partnerships with government to help families connect with their peers, share information and resources, and move toward stability. Recognizing and developing the abilities of low-income women may be the best investment we can make for our economy — and the best investment women can make for their families and themselves.

There are no silver bullets, but recognizing the powerful economic potential of women is an important start. Two-generation approaches, including strengthened social capital, are opportunities to harness women’s drive and help make their dreams a reality.