Gen smallSocial innovation is often perceived as the implementation of a brand-new idea, but it is not always about an idea. It can also be a new way of delivering an existing program or service or a way to take that idea to scale successfully. The two-generation (also called 2-generation or “2Gen”) approach falls into the latter category – a simple, yet profound, idea to unite programming for parents and their children to create a multiplier effect. It is defined as “creating opportunities for and addressing needs of both vulnerable parents and children together.” Unfortunately, while the inclusion of two generations together seems like a common-sense approach, programs that utilize it are not common. For example, services that provide adult education and skills training often view children as a barrier to participation and do not adequately address childcare as a major barrier to GED/college completion. Similarly, programs focused on educating children often view parents merely as facilitators of the children’s education and not as a child’s “first and most important teacher.”

For this reason, we have been following the 2Gen trend for the past decade and wanted to share the many reasons why the 2Gen approach is not only innovative, but also is proving to be impactful. Here are a few that stand out to us:


    1. SILO-BUSTING: Fields from all disciplines are converging
      Even though the 2Gen field is still taking root, early results suggest that this approach has five essential components: education (i.e., early childhood education), postsecondary and employment pathways, economic support, health and well-being, and social capital. Within these components, best and promising practices from various fields are converging. Asset building and bundled-service delivery pioneered by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and organizations like Prosperity Now are the cornerstones of the economic support component. Meanwhile, workforce demand and research on the impact of maternal education on child outcomes are driving the education component for parents. As you know, we love silo-busting ideas, and the 2Gen approach is leveraging these best practices from multiple disciplines to better serve their families.
    2. SYSTEM CHANGE: Leaders are trying to change the system, not just one program or organization
      Increasingly, leaders in the 2Gen movement have been trying to scale this approach by changing systems rather than disseminating the approach one program at a time. The Aspen Institute’s Ascend Family Economic Security Program (Ascend) has been working with community college systems, municipal housing authorities and early childhood education systems to streamline and coordinate services that address the needs of both parents and their children. Early Head Start, Head Start and other quality early childhood programs are seen as prime candidates for this scaling strategy as it is a convenient, centralized point for parents to receive the support they need to achieve their goals while addressing the developmental needs of their children.
    3. POLICY: 2Gen policies are trying to ensure win-wins
      Advocates of 2Gen approaches are working to align the priorities of government agencies so that parents’ and children’s needs do not conflict. The system is often misaligned, and parents are forced to make difficult tradeoffs between earning a stable income and their children’s education. By pushing for flexible employer policies, supporting the expansion of earned income tax credits and building bridges to affordable childcare for those benefitting from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Higher Education Act or other career pathway programs, parents may be able to secure a higher paying job while also giving their children the best opportunities to grow. To check out how recent federal legislation is creating opportunities to advance 2Gen, read this great piece in Ascend’s Solution Series.
To learn more about how 2Gen is defined and how we can scale programs using this approach, we must look to the Aspen Institute (where I serve in the Society of Fellows and love getting their 5 Best Ideas of the Day). While the 2Gen concept originated in the late 1980s, it didn’t fully take off until the amazing staff and early funders of the Aspen Institute and their Ascend program defined and shared this innovative idea through a near-perfect example of scaling. Ascend was started in 2010 by a strategic co-funding investment of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, among others, with the “vision of an America in which a legacy of economic security and educational success passes from one generation to the next.” It focuses on three types of two-generation approaches: whole-family (e.g., mother-child programs); child-focused with parent elements (e.g,. Head Start); and parent-focused with child elements (e.g., single-parent programs on college campuses).



Given the model’s flexibility, the Aspen Institute also put together guiding principles to share best practices as well as create a level of discipline and consistency for those using the 2Gen model. Additionally, they have given us a masterclass in scaling 2Gen across the country through best practices in programmatic checklists, communications, policy and network-building.  


While research is still being done to determine if combining parent-child approaches has a multiplier effect, the results to date have been encouraging. To check out successful providers near you, visit Ascend’s database of promising two-generation programs, which shows the many forms 2Gen can take.


If we utilize these tools wisely, we can do more to solve intergenerational poverty. We believe 2Gen approaches are promising paths for helping more families achieve the self-sufficiency they seek. If you are among the pioneers working on #2Gen, please share your approach with us.


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