Family Finances

Working Across Generations to Move Rural Families Forward

May 26, 2016

(Credit: UNH Carsey School of Public Policy)

(Credit: UNH Carsey School of Public Policy)

The Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group (CSG) connects, motivates, and equips local leaders to build more prosperous regions and advance those living on the economic margins. Through its Rural Family Economic Success initiative, CSG connects practitioners and policymakers with useful ideas, stories, data, and learning opportunities that can help build economic stability and success for hardworking rural families.

CSG is partnering with the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policyto inform rural practice by analyzing and sharing data about rural families and economies. Here, we look at the rise in rural child poverty across the US and shine a spotlight on how innovative leaders in rural communities are using a two-generation approach to build a brighter future for rural children and their families.

We all want the best for our children’s futures: a quality education, meaningful employment, stable finances, good health and well-being. But for rural children living in poverty, the future isn’t so bright. In 2014, nearly 25 percent of children in nonmetropolitan areas were poor, compared to about 21 percent in metropolitan areas. According to the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy, while child poverty increased from 2000 to 2010 in both rural and urban areas, high child poverty (20 percent in poverty or greater) is worse in rural communities.Sixty-four percent of rural counties experienced high child poverty in 2010 compared to 47 percent of urban counties. And in many rural areas, high child poverty has persisted for decades. Between 1980 and 2010, 29 percent of non-metro counties maintained persistent high child poverty rates compared to 15 percent of metro counties.

Research shows that children raised in poverty are less likely to graduate from high school or remain consistently employed, and they are more likely to live in poverty as adults. So how can rural families and communities buck this trend and build on local assets — like their resourcefulness, relationships, and creativity — to ensure the long-term success of local children?

The “two-generation” approach

CDF/SRO two-generation participants attending a Financial Literacy Bootcamp (Photo Credit: CDF/SRO)

Across the country, momentum is building for a “two-generation” approach that creates opportunities for and addresses the needs of economically vulnerable children and their parents at the same time. Ascend, one of CSG’s colleague programs at the Institute and the leader in the two-generation field, defines the two-generation approach as “emphasizing the provision of education, economic supports, social capital, and health and well-being to create a legacy of economic security that passes from one generation to the next.”

In rural communities where community resources are limited and long distances and a lack of reliable transportation make it difficult for families to connect to employment, child and health care, or other critical supports, a two-generation approach to addressing child poverty seems like a natural fit.

This is proving true in the high-poverty community of Indianola, Mississippi (population 12,000). Here, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Southern Regional Office (CDF/SRO) — a member of the growing Ascend Network — is expanding its home visiting program, originally focused on children’s early-learning, to include working with mothers on their economic needs and interests. Mothers in the program set goals related to financial stability, employment, education, quality family time, and more. Working with the parents in the home visiting program was a “natural starting place for us,” said CDF/SRO Director Oleta Fitzgerald. “There wasn’t enough money to do this as a stand-alone program, so we went where resources were already available” and added a parent-mentoring element to the child-focused home visiting program.

Gloria Shields, a coach for the program, helps mothers set economic and educational goals and connect them to much-needed supports such as child care and transportation. “We have found that having someone there to encourage, nudge, and connect the parents is part of the secret sauce to helping families succeed,” said Fitzgerald. Thanks to Shields’ efforts, while children are receiving high-quality early education, their moms are now working toward their GED or taking college courses. In the long-term, these efforts will add up to higher incomes for families and better outcomes for children who otherwise may have fallen behind.

Building rural two-generation systems – and evidence

Staff from Mid-Iowa Community Action talk about their two-generation approach at the Rural IMPACT convening in November 2015 (Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture)

Nearly seven years ago, when the term “two-generation” was still relatively new, Garrett County Community Action Committee (GCCAC), in far western rural Maryland, made a strategic decision to implement a two-generation program. Local families used to complete a separate form for each program or service they accessed through GCCAC, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Low Income Home Energy Assistance, and Head Start. Today, families complete one single intake form that informs them about all the services for which parents and their children are eligible. This change alone has slashed the number of steps families must take to get critically needed services. But in addition, every family can work with a coach at the agency to self-assess their level of food security, housing stability, financial stability and more – and then set short- and long-term goals for themselves using a tool called a “Pathway Plan.”

GCCAC closely tracks all of this information in a database that is used agency-wide. This system allows the agency to actually see the impact they are having on rural families. The organization’s President, Duane Yoder, while admitting they still have a lot to learn, already sees promising results from their efforts.

“We have more parents taking courses at our local community college, and more parents paying their bills and successfully managing their finances,” said Yoder. Data is showing that children in their program whose parents are somewhat stable financially are more likely to enter kindergarten ready to learn and more likely to maintain high attendance than children whose parents are financially unstable. “We actually see how our work is making a difference in Garrett County; we’re laying a foundation for a stable and successful future for the hardworking families who live, work, and play here,” said Yoder.

Growing two-generation momentum in rural communities

In 2015, the White House Rural Council and the Department of Health and Human Services, along with the US Departments of Agriculture and Labor and other federal partners, launched a national demonstration project called Rural Integration Models for Parents and Children to Thrive (Rural IMPACT). This cross-agency effort is helping 10 rural and tribal communities across the US adopt a two-generation approach. In November 2015, CSG facilitated a Peer-Learning Institute for the 10 Rural IMPACT community teams, at which they advised each other and learned about rural service integration strategies like co-locating multiple services under one roof, streamlining intake by determining a family’s eligibility for multiple public programs at once, strengthening referral networks, and using technology like text messaging or web-conferencing to deliver services.

In July, CSG will facilitate a second Peer-Learning Institute to gauge progress on this goal and foster learning and dialogue to advance each site’s two-generation program implementation.

Kristin Feierabend is the Family Economic Success Program Manager for the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group.