The Whole Family Approach

    Whole family, or two-generation (2Gen), approaches build family well-being by intentionally and simultaneously working with children and the adults in their lives together. The approach recognizes that families come in all different shapes and sizes and that families define themselves.

    If you would like to use any of Ascend’s Whole Family graphics, you can download a quick and easy Zip file here. We kindly request that you attribute these graphics to Ascend.

    Whole family approaches can be found along a continuum. This graphic illustrates the starting point (parent or child) and the relative emphasis.

    The Two-Generation Graphic

    Whole family approaches focus equally and intentionally on services and opportunities for the child and the adults in their lives. They articulate and track outcomes for both children and adults simultaneously.

    • Child-parent approaches focus first or primarily on the child but are moving toward a two-generation approach and include services and opportunities for the parent.
    • Parent-child approaches focus first or primarily on the parent but are moving toward a two-generation approach and include services and opportunities for children.

    In addition to the continuum, there are 5 Key Components of the Whole Family Approach: 1) Postsecondary Education and Employment Pathways; 2) Early Childhood Education and Development; 3) Economic Assets; 4) Health and Well-Being; and 5) Social Capital.

    Two-Generation Approach Core Components

    Postsecondary and Employment Pathways and Early Childhood Development

    • Investments in high-quality early education yield a 7-10 percent per year return on investment based on increased school and career achievement as well as reduced social costs.
    • At the same time, parents who complete a college degree double their incomes. A parent’s level of educational attainment is also a strong predictor of a child’s success.
    • Whole Family education programs and policies include postsecondary education and employment pathways; early childhood development programs, like child care, Head Start, and home visiting; family literacy; and K-12 education.
    Return on Investment: High-Quality Early Education
    • Whole Family Resources on Education:
      • Gateways to Two Generations: The Potential for Early Childhood Programs and Partnerships to Support Children and Parents Together
      • Starting Strong: Policy Ideas for Quality Child Care and Early Childhood Development
      • Children and Families at the Center (report)
      • The Elephant in the Clinic: Early Literacy and Family Well-Being

    Economic Assets

    • A $3,000 difference in parents’ income when their child is young is associated with a 17 percent increase in the child’s future earnings. A relatively small increase in household income can have a significant, lasting positive impact on the life of a child.
    • Nevertheless, almost half of all children in the United States belong to families with low incomes. Almost three-fourths of single-mother families with children are low-income. Poverty alleviation is dependent on families’ abilities to successfully manage financial setbacks and build economic security. Children with as little as $499 in an account designated for college are more likely to enroll and graduate. Even small dollar amounts help children see a college education as a possibility.
    • Economic assets include housing, transportation, financial education and asset building, tax credits, student financial aid, nutrition assistance, and more.
    • Whole Family Resources on Economic Assets
      • 2Gen Strategies for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
      • The Bottom Line: Impact Investing for Economic Mobility in the U.S.

    Health and Well-Being

    • If a child is unwell, it can affect attendance and learning in school, and a parent’s illness can impact ability to earn or perform at work. Physical health and mental health, a component of the two-generation approach, have a major impact on a family’s ability to thrive
    • Childhood trauma, for instance, has lasting health and social consequences. Similarly, economic supports, such as housing, and social capital, such as connections to one’s neighborhood and community, are important social determinants of health. The dynamics of federal and state health care access policies through Medicaid are critical factors in identifying barriers and opportunities for increasing the health and well-being of children and their parents.
    • Whole Family Resources on Health and Well-being
      • Two Open Windows: Infant and Parent Neurobiologic Change
      • Webinar: Toxic! Stress, Health, and ACEs

    Social Capital

    • Social capital is a key success factor of the two-generation approach. Many years of research has shown that social capital manifests as peer support; contact with family, friends, and neighbors; participation in community and faith-based organizations; school and workplace contacts; leadership and empowerment programs; use of case managers or career coaches; social networks, such as cohort models and learning communities; and mental health services.
    • Social capital builds on the strength and resilience of families, bolstering the aspirations parents have for their children and for themselves. It is a powerful component in programs that help move families beyond poverty.
    • Whole Family Resources on Social Capital
      • Home-Grown Social Capital: how higher education for formerly incarcerated women facilitates family and community transformation (Report)
      • Social Capital and the American Dream (blog post)

    Guiding Principles

    These 5 principles should be embedded in whole family programs, policies, and strategies:

    1. Measure and account for outcomes for both children and their parents. Dual outcomes are at the heart of true two-generation programs. Programs and policies should measure how well they serve the whole family. Our report, Making Tomorrow Better Together, details the intended outcomes of a 2-generation approach
    2. Engage and listen to the voices of families. Undergirding all of Ascend’s work — from principles to practice to policy — is a commitment to listen to families and ensure their perspectives and experience inform program and policy design. Policies provide the scaffolding and structures that support parents; parents themselves fuel and create their family’s successful path toward economic security.
    3. Ensure equity. Two-generation strategies should evaluate and fix structural problems that create gender and/or racial and ethnic disparities in the ways that programs provide services and assistance. 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.
    4. Foster innovation and evidence together. Tap insights from prior evidence-based research and build a deliberate pipeline to ensure innovation. Policies and organizational cultures should encourage the integration of innovation into emerging evidence and evaluations of effectiveness.
    5. Align and link systems and funding streams. Rarely will single funding streams fully address all the needs of children, parents, and families. Programs will need to blend and coordinate funds to deliver two-generation services. Aligning and linking systems at the state and community level — eligibility standards, performance benchmarks, and coordinated administrative structures — while simultaneously pursuing improved outcomes for both parents and children will lead to two-generation success.

    Examples of Practice

    Birmingham Women’s Fund Manufacturing Pilot

    In The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham’s five-county footprint (Blount, Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, and Walker county), 38% of female-headed households with children live below the federal poverty line, making them one of the most vulnerable populations in the community. Through listening sessions and community engagement, TWFGB learned that programs serving these vulnerable families too often use fragmented approaches that address the needs of parents and children separately leaving one generation behind. Beginning in 2013 and continuing through 2020, TWFGB embarked on a series of 2Gen strategies – including Collaboration Institute, examining ways to incentivize partnerships across organizations serving families with low incomes – that culminated in its Prescription for Success pilots (which combined quality child care with pharmaceutical technical certification programs). More recently TWFGB focused on 18 manufacturing pilots for primarily single mothers in three sites across their counties.

    Family Futures Downeast

    Family Futures Downeast began as a way to move whole-family solutions forward. In partnership with the University of Maine Machias and the Washington County Community College, Community Caring Collaborative (CCC) was able to secure grant funding from the Great Bay Foundation to develop a program concept, build a network of support, and eventually move the project from an idea to a reality.

    Their solution was a brand-new education model designed to help high-risk families by making it easier for parents to take college courses. The goal is to support and empower families with low incomes with pathways to career opportunities and access to supports that increase self-confidence and success. Based on identified barriers to success for parents, CCC and their partners were challenged to find innovative strategies to help parents return to school and gain life and work skills that would change outcomes for themselves and their children. The group determined that they needed to provide financial supports and social supports to remove the many barriers that often derail parents’ success in a post-secondary setting.

    Family Futures Downeast is a model of whole family programming that benefits both the parents and their children. Parents take part in a college-level program, through which they earn 15 college credits over the course of one year. The topics include family resource management, human and child development, advocacy skills and more. Children are enrolled in high quality, on-site early educational programs offered by Child and Family Opportunities, a strategy designed to give them the best possible start. Participants benefit from comprehensive support for their financial, academic, and social needs, while participants take part in five workshops that offer intensive learning opportunities that complement the core curriculum and will cover topics such as financial literacy, health and nutrition, or workplace skills.

    Examples of Policy

    Colorado: Internal and External Whole Family Shifts

    Colorado is a national leader in 2Gen approaches. While it was not called 2Gen at the time, Colorado’s pioneering 2Gen work dates back several decades when community organizations began to embrace a more holistic approach to working with families, providing early care and education, access to adult learning, family supports, and mental health and life skills support to low-income parents and their children. More recently, under the leadership of Colorado Department of Human Services executive director Reggie Bicha, who served under Gov. John Hickenlooper, focused on a new mind-set on how programs and policies are designed and implemented. This means taking a holistic approach to incorporating families’ experiences, capabilities, goals, and values into an ongoing, strengths-based partnership between families and service providers. The 2Gen approach is a complement to other internal and external strategies aimed at improving the delivery of health services and outcomes in Colorado. For example, in their internal operations, human services departments across the country have embraced the Human Services Value Curve to help achieve their long-term goals. 

    Externally, the 2Gen approach echoes and enriches the Colorado Opportunity Project, which is a cross-agency collaboration among the Colorado Departments of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF), Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and Human Services (DHS). The Colorado Opportunity Project creates a life stage/indicator-based framework that incorporates key social determinants into a health care delivery system. The project’s goal is to remove roadblocks to economic self-sufficiency by delivering proven interventions through an integrated system of health, social, and educational well-being that aligns many effective yet disparate efforts to provide whole-person, whole-community health care. At the heart of the project is the Opportunity Framework, which covers six life stages, from family formation to adulthood, that represent a healthy individual’s life continuum — each life stage builds on the previous. The approach reinforces the relationship between all the life stages, with a focus on inter-stage influence and connection. You can learn more in the Colorado Guide to 2Gen.

    More recently, the Women’s Foundation of Colorado augmented this work and partnered with the Governor’s office to convene a group of early childhood and workforce system providers to identify strategies for the state to improve its whole family approach in policy and practice.  Over 50 stakeholders engaged, reviewed data, identified gaps, and prioritized action.  Improving and expanding the early childhood education workforce in wages, training, and access is the group’s top priority, and work is now underway to identify promising strategies and policies to support expansion of the workforce and ensuring the jobs are quality jobs for providers, the vast majority of whom are women.

    Whole Family Approach to Jobs

    The WFAJ initiative started in New England and was a six state effort led by the regional Administration for Children and Families in Region 1 in partnership with the National Conference of State Legislatures to change policy and practice in each state to help parents work and children thrive. With seed funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, this effort involved many public-private, cross-sector partnerships, including executive branch leaders, legislators, parents, business, multiple local and state philanthropies, and best practice organizations. The initiative bridges to ACF’s southern Region 4 where innovative state practices are growing in whole family policy and practice solutions. The initiative supports states in peer learning within and across states; identifies common challenges and policy solutions; and fosters state-federal dialogue to address policies that remove barriers and better support family economic mobility. In three years, the initiative has contributed to significant policy change in each state, including increasing earned income disregards for TANF families, increasing food supplement payments, establishing benefits cliff analyses and calculators, and increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit. The work continues with ACF partnering with The American Public Human Services Association and various public-private partners, and there have been coordinated efforts to support families during COVID as well.