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How to stop the heartbreaking cycle of intergenerational poverty

  • matthew laplante
  • February 21, 2019

Three years have past since Chico Harlan’s heartbreaking series in The Washington Post “A Region Left Behind” laid bare the crushing truth of poverty in the Deep South.

In places like Drew, Mississippi, the chances of climbing out of poverty aren’t good — even for students who do manage to earn a high school diploma. (And only about half do.) Poor high school graduates who do not advance to college have a 77 percent chance of raising their children in poverty, too. Even those who go on to college can have a hard time breaking the cycle of desperation. Harlan wrote of one woman, for instance, who worked hard to earn a criminal justice degree — and was rewarded with a job that paid less than $10 an hour.

Harlan’s reporting was enough to make even the most optimistic of educators throw their hands up in despair. It was unflinching and accurate. But it also missed something very important.

It is true that high school diplomas have a significant — albeit, yes, sometimes disappointing — impact on helping people out of poverty. It’s also true, however, that when education is “stacked,” generation on top of generation, the impact is tremendously more powerful.

This is why so-called “two-generation programs,” which improve education for children and job opportunities for parents at the same time, hold so much promise. These approaches have been found to be highly effective in helping families get out of poverty.

We do not have to wait for several generations to come and go. We do not have to force people to slowly wait their turn for a better life. Helping multiple generations at the same time — for instance through high school diploma programs for working-age adults and dropout prevention programs for their children — is a vital key for helping break the poverty cycle.

Would you like to know what Graduation Alliance is doing to help communities provide intergenerational education opportunities? Learn more about our high school completion and adult diploma programs.