On July 21, the John T. Gorman Foundation hosted a webinar on its recent policy brief, “The Two-Generation Approach: Recommendations for Bridging Practice and Policy in Maine.” Panelists included the brief’s author Sarah Griffen, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Commissioner Bethany Hamm, and Tracye Fortin, Director of Child and Family Services at KVCAP/Educare. Facilitated by consultant Gail Hayes and introduced by Foundation President & CEO Tony Cipollone, what followed was a robust discussion about what it takes to support families at this challenging time.
Here are just five of many takeaways from the event.
1) Maine’s recent gains to support families puts it in a strong position to do more.
Sarah Griffen, who consults on two-generation policy work across the country, said Maine stands out for its leadership both in programs and policies to support whole families. In particular, she applauded state efforts to reduce the impacts of benefits cliffs on Maine families – a sudden reduction of public benefits that can be triggered by increased income. “You passed the most extensive benefits cliffs legislation in the country,” she said, referencing LIFT and STEP bills passed unanimously by the State Legislature in 2019.
There are many ways to build on that success with further steps, Griffen noted, highlighting the four recommendations of the Foundation’s policy brief: supporting career pathways for parents; using programs targeted to children as a platform to work with parents; making family contact with state government more streamlined and comprehensive; and leveraging the value of state investments.
2) Exciting developments underway on whole-family programs at the state level.
Deputy Commissioner Bethany Hamm outlined a number of whole-family initiatives being implemented right now by the state. They have put out a request for proposals for Working Cars for Working Families, a program to help low-income families access reliable transportation for work and education. Coming in the weeks ahead will be another RFP for $2 million in new annual funding to support two-generation and whole-family programming. The state is also working to launch a benefits calculator before the end of the year – an online tool to navigate the complex interaction between career pathways and public benefits.
“It would provide families with a transparent view of where they hit those benefit cliffs and what different scenarios look like from an economic perspective – their gains and their losses,” said Hamm. “And it also helps them in choosing a career path that is right for them.”
3) In practice and policy, parent engagement is critical.
Panelists noted the importance of engaging parents – from the start and at multiple levels – in building successful programs and policies. Tracye Fortin of KVCAP said this hallmark of the two-generation approach has fundamentally changed their organizational culture. It has meant helping staff gain a deeper understanding of poverty and trauma; ensuring parents have a voice in program decisions; and reshaping interactions to make families feel welcome and supported.
“When a parent first applies, there’s an opportunity right there for engagement,” Fortin said. “Is it respectful? Are we posing the right questions? Are we saying, ‘Please and thank you,’ so they initially have a good feeling?”
4) The two-generation approach could be a powerful tool for advancing racial equity.
Because the two-generation approach is a framework of keeping family needs at the center, it can be adapted to address any number of systemic challenges families face, including racial inequality.
“I also think two-gen initiatives help undo the policies that have created fragmentation across programs,” Griffen added. “And so often, in Maine and elsewhere, that fragmentation has fallen on the shoulders of parents and caregivers of color. Those structural barriers have made it really difficult for black and brown families to get ahead.”
5) Increased action during the COVID-19 crisis offers hope for substantive change.
The pandemic has created numerous challenges for Maine families, but nonprofits and the state have moved quickly to address their needs and accommodate difficult circumstances. Hamm said Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has made 23 changes and waivers to policy to offer parents flexibility and speed the distribution of benefits during this time, but notes that the federal government is now becoming more restrictive in what it is allowing.
This rapid action gives Griffen hope that positive changes to help whole families thrive with a two-generation approach can be made and sustained.
“I want to applaud all of you and your extraordinary work – government, nonprofits, philanthropy, parents, caregivers and children – to adjust and pivot so quickly and to innovate in ways that we could not have imagined six months ago,” Griffen said. “What it means is that we can do this, we can make policy and practice better for families and we can do it now. It may take a couple extra cups of coffee, but it is possible.”