Effective Two-Generation Programs

Social Solutions Blog

Effective Two-Generation Programs

Effective two-generation programs drive upward mobility in families and broader system change because they support children and parents together.

Two-generation models recognize that providing services and support to both children and parents can lead to better outcomes than serving only children or parents alone. For example, home visits can provide parents with education and support alongside providing their children with access to nutrition and health care.

Another example, FUEL Education, a nonprofit based in Boston, takes a two-generation approach to social change. Founded on the core values that higher education is attainable for all, regardless of income, and that family engagement is crucial to students’ educational achievement, FUEL Education provides knowledge, resources, connections, and financial incentives that empower parents to propel their children into higher education.

The What and Why of Two-Generation Programs

According to The Urban Institute, “The concept of intergenerational social mobility lies at the heart of the American dream… [B]y climbing ladders of opportunity, each subsequent generation can do better than the last.” Many social programs implicitly seek to create and help individuals climb those “ladders of opportunity.”

The Aspen Institute, a leader in two-generation policy and research, explains:

What young children learn from the adults who raise and care for them lays the foundation for future social, emotional, language, and cognitive growth. When children do not have these protective relationships and experience deprivation and high stress levels that often come with poverty, their brains and bodies adapt in ways that can have long-term negative effects.

Two-generation programs address both the source and the effects of that deprivation and stress. They maximize positive outcomes for both parents and children while services are being provided. They can also build a foundation for families to continue positive growth and progress beyond program participation.

The Multiplier Effect of Two-Generation Programs

At their core, all two-generation models have two things in common:

  1. They are trying to address extremely difficult and complex social issues
  2. The complexity of two-generation models makes them very hard to conceptualize and implement effectively

Despite those challenges, effective two-generation programs are built on the recognition that having both parents and children participate in coordinated services can create a “multiplier effect.” That is, parents and children will participate at higher levels and have greater success in coordinated two-generation programs than they would in programs that target only children or only parents.

For example, when parents see their children achieving academic success, they may be inspired to pursue more education and obtain better employment. As parents increase their economic security and potential, they create a less stress-filled environment leading to further improvement in their children’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. Ultimately, this multiplier effect benefits not only the parent or the child, but the entire family.

From an outcomes perspective, two-generation programs can support growth and opportunity not only for parents and children, but entire communities. As the Urban Institute explains, “Up-front investments in two-generation models could significantly reduce or even eliminate the investments required to support the third and subsequent generations.” At the end of the day, isn’t the goal of most social programs to be so effective they put themselves out of business?

Guiding Principles for Two-Generation Programs

So, how do you ensure that you are implementing an effective two-generation program? The Aspen Institute has identified six principles of effective two-generation programs. Let’s take a look at those principles and how they might shape the way an effective two-generation program is designed and implemented.

  1. Measure and account for outcomes for both children and their parents

The heart of two-generation programs is impacting multiple outcomes for both parents and children, not to mention families and communities as a whole. Dual outcomes are vital to determining if a policy or program is successful in general. They are also vital for demonstrating that an effective two-generation program is creating the desired multiplier effect. Make sure you are defining outcomes and metrics for all stakeholders and make sure your data collection and case management systems are calibrated to collect and effectively evaluate that data.

  1. Engage and listen to the voices of families

Policies and programs can provide structures and support for families and children, but ultimately, it is the parents and families who collectively fuel economic and social change. Effective two-generation programs engage and listen to parents, children, and the collective voice of families. One case manager for a housing program in Portland that uses a two-generation model explains that using a family-centered approach, rather than just a parent-centered or child-centered approach, helps to build more meaningful relationships. In turn, those relationships provide case managers with better information and insights that drive more effective program implementation.

  1. Foster innovation and evidence together

Starting with evidence-based practice models is always key to building an effective program. There is no reason to spend resources reinventing the wheel. At the same time, most two-generation programs are built on an understanding that there is room for additional success and even better outcomes by taking a more holistic or family-centered approach. Effective two-generation programs look for opportunities to innovate. They also develop a deliberate pipeline to makes sure those innovations are tested and refined. As the Aspen Institute explains, “Policies should strongly encourage the integration of innovative approaches into emerging evidence, evaluations of effectiveness, and best practice.”

  1. Align and link systems and funding streams

Often, funding streams are not allocated specifically for two-generation programs. Effective two-generation programs often need to coordinate and blend funds to support coordinated services. Two-generation programs can also wield huge influence at the state and local level. By sharing their own outcomes data and experiences, they can encourage policy makers to streamline and coordinate performance benchmarks, outcomes data, metrics, and administrative structures. Not only can these efforts improve the support and structure of their own programs, but can ultimately drive positive outcomes across the community and beyond their own programmatic scope.

  1. Prioritize intentional implementation

Effective two-generation programs are intentional about how they implement each and every program element. Intentionality is even more important for two-generation programs that involve a wide range of interconnected and coordinated services. Special attention should be paid to the level and intensity of services being provided to both parents and children. Ongoing data collection and evaluation should be designed to support individual case management as well as overall program evaluations.

  1. Ensure equity

In addition to individual family outcomes, effective two-generation programs should address structural and community-wide problems that create and propagate gender and racial/ethnic disparities. The Aspen Institute explains, “Many current funding streams and policies do not reflect the demographic realities of 21st century American families, where one in four U.S. children is growing up in a single-parent family, many headed by women, and where children and parents of color are disproportionately low-income.” As effective two-generation programs seek to address those inequalities as well as capture and pass on outcomes data and evidence of their effectiveness to their funders, they can influence important conversations amongst policy makers and funders. In turn, those conversations can shape support for approaches, like two-generation programs, that acknowledge and address the need for systemic change.


Whether your work is focused on reducing poverty, improving access to health care, addressing homelessness, or other social services that seek to improve “upward mobility” for children and families, an effective two-generation approach can drive success.

As these innovative and holistic programs build additional evidence of their success, we will continue to support their important and impactful work!

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