For the past 50 years the War on Poverty has taken two separate paths. One focuses money on programs for low-income children, and the other focuses money on programs to train low-income adults in the workforce.
Sarah Griffen, a senior consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said Wednesday that the division of the family comes from the federal, state, and local government, and some of it is by “unconscious design.”
“They support either the parent or the child, but not both,” Griffen told a group of policy advocates gathered at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
“For instance, job programs consider children as barriers to work,” she said. “Early childhood programs very often don’t focus on the fact that parents need access to jobs and income.”
She said what’s needed are programs and systems that align themselves around “whole families.”
“It sounds like common sense, it is not common practice,” Griffen added.
The report released by Griffen’s organization Wednesday found that in Connecticut 80,000 children under the age of 5 are in low-income households, 60 percent of low-income families with young kids have no parent working full-time, and 80 percent do not have post-secondary degree.
“We need to make government more family-friendly,” Griffen said.
Rep. Toni Walker, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, agreed.
She said the state needs to start requiring more information from its clients and use that information to help them gain access to more resources in one location.
“We should not have people going back and forth from agency to agency when resources are drying up,” Walker said. “We need to learn how to be efficient.”
She said if the agencies are being more efficient then it’s going to save the state money and those dollars have a value.
Not everyone was sold on the “two-generation” approach when it was pitched as a stand-alone bill during the last legislative session.
The bill would have established a two-generational school readiness plan to promote long-term learning and economic success for low-income families by addressing intergenerational barriers to school readiness and workforce readiness with high-quality preschool, intensified workforce training and targeted education, coupled with related support services. It was tabled in the Senate in April.
At least two state commissioners, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and Social Services Commissioner Roderick Bremby, testified against the bill.
“We agree that the integration of early childhood education and access to skills-based training and adult education for parents is a comprehensive, family-centered strategy that deserves attention,” Bremby testified in March. However, he said the legislation would have been redundant to what was already happening through the Child Poverty Council and the Office of Early Childhood.
In his testimony, Bremby did support the legislation’s intent. And representing Connecticut this week in an Annie E. Casey Foundation webinar, he spoke about how the state’s approach to two-generational policy can better help children and parents struggling with poverty.
Pryor said the same work was already being conducted through the Family Resource Centers.
Walker disagreed that it was already under way and language found its way into the state budget that asked the Commission on Children to come up with recommendations for how the state should be going forward with a “two-generation” approach.
The Commission on Children will present its recommendations to the legislature on Dec. 1.
Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of the Commission on Children, said Wednesday that the state could be using TANF, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, differently by using it for school readiness and workforce readiness concurrently.
“We are allowed to use TANF for two-generational strategy,” Zimmerman said.
Griffen said other states like South Carolina and Louisiana have been using this “two-generation” approach for some time. For instance, in Louisiana there’s automatic enrollment in health insurance for children who receive Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
“We need to adopt practices that offer a no wrong door approach,” Griffen said.
It’s unclear how many existing resources the state may divert toward these two track programs, but Zimmerman suggested the state start experimenting with a small portion of the money.
Walker said she’s ready to move forward with the idea.