ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt sitting in for Arun Rath. Policymakers and thinkers have long debated how best to help low-income families break the cycle of generational poverty. A lot of people think one key is high-quality early childhood education. Others say equally important is support for parents with job training and education to get them into stable, decent paying jobs.
I recently traveled to Tulsa, Okla., where an experimental program is trying to do both. It's called Career Advance. It gives vulnerable mothers access to high-quality preschool as well as to life coaching, financial incentives and intensive job training in in-demand fields like nursing and health care.
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UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: ...and one of the things that cholesterol does is it's a precursor for vitamin D. Cholesterol...
WESTERVELT: If you think the community college nutrition class has little to do with helping low-income families, think again. Struggling to get out of poverty, the two-generation approach, it's tonight's cover story.
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UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: ...this is my first presentation with the group. I want to make sure I am like A,B,C,D deep in my child care solutions.
WESTERVELT: About two dozen women, many of the single moms, sit in a basic workplace etiquette seminar at Tulsa Community College's downtown branch. All are enrolled in the career advanced nursing program. A few women roll their eyes. Much of this class is commonsense stuff, but it's required. Organizers say the classes help the women improve communication skills and self esteem.
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UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: How about handshakes? Has anyone ever had a wimpy, horrible handshake given to them?
UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: Well, it almost makes you make a facial expression when it happens, right?
WESTERVELT: The program is intentionally designed so the women re-enter the school and work worlds as a group to reinforce a we're-in-this-together ethos. Career Advance also involves rigorous handholding, including career coaches and financial bonuses all linked in to good child care.
SHARTARA WALLACE: My name is Shartara Wallace. I'm 29 and I'm in the nursing program. I've seen it as a great opportunity. I've always wanted to go back to school and they were going to pay for it. And so I was like, well, let me jump on this.
WESTERVELT: Wallace has two young boys, 4 and 9 years old from two different partners. Her youngest son James goes to a Head Start program, the federal Early Learning Program run by the Community Action Project of Tulsa County. A centerpiece of this two-generation approach is helping parents become good role models and to lay the groundwork for their kids to follow that pathway, not the one that got them stuck in the first place.
Wallace tried to go back to school before and failed. She'd go for a semester or two and then stop. I'm a master procrastinator, she says. For her, the program's big draws were the monetary rewards for good grades and attendance, up to $200 a month, and the career coaches.
WALLACE: They've become almost like second mothers. I mean, because they really stay on you, they push you. And then at the same time they - you know, they're there to hold your hand. But just like a parent where it's like, OK, I need you to walk on your own and handle this, but I've still got your back.
WESTERVELT: A little more about that; you have help with that, with a partner or are you on your own?
WALLACE: I'm on my own. I do have a good support system. It's mainly the grandparents.
WESTERVELT: What do you think they're getting out of it, your sons? Are they getting inspired by you, you hope?
WALLACE: Sometimes I bring them with me if I need to come up to the school to study, just to let them know that, you know, it's OK to go to school. You need to get an education. And my oldest kind of gets inspired but he already - he's only 9 and he already talks about college and things like that. And he's in the third grade. They have this test coming up and him seeing me study, he wants to study.
WESTERVELT: When you get down about the program, maybe didn't do so well on a test, maybe your son's got a cold, trying to balance it all, what do you look to for inspiration to keep going? What keeps you focused?
WALLACE: One is - I mean, I do believe in God and the fact that I want to be able to give my sons better than what I had, to provide for them financially and, you know, just even more. And so they keep me focused.
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UNIDENTIFIED PRESENTER: So, OK. What if when if when they go (unintelligible)? Why is it awkward? Why...
WESTERVELT: The program's only a few years old. It's a work in progress and there are big challenges ahead. About a quarter of the women drop out altogether. A much larger percentage sign up for the registered nurse program and end up in lower-tiered nursing assistant jobs for a lot less money.
MEGAN OEHLKE: Mostly it's like, how do I study 17 hours for this class when I have three kids at home and one of them that needs me full time?
WESTERVELT: Staffer and career coach Megan Oehlke notes that among women who stuck with the program through one year, three-quarters got at least one educational certificate. That's in keeping with the programs designed to get the parents at least some additional schooling credential that'll help them land a better job.
OEHLKE: How much do we hold their hand and help them be successful in that first part of their training and how much do we say fly? We got a net down here. We'll try and catch you, but fly. So we go back and forth in that as well.
WESTERVELT: You have an emotional connection and investment in these people.
OEHLKE: I do.
WESTERVELT: You take pride in their success. How do you feel when they fail, because people do fail and drop out?
OEHLKE: It's hard. It's very hard. Mostly what's hard is when I see their potential and I see where they could be if they did something different or made different choices. And when they get down into the hard work of it, if I really believe that they could actually do it, they have the personality, they have the curiosity, they have that drive but something has stood in their way, we can work around that. But you have to want to do that.
And they see that now. They're like, I'm telling my kids they're going to college no matter what. It's not an option to just finish at 12th grade. And they said, no one ever pushed me that way. No one ever had me do that.
WESTERVELT: Many early learning and antipoverty programs in America say they take a whole family approach and offer job training and other support services. But too often they merely offer referrals, phone numbers and contact lists for services. Supporters here believe Tulsa's program is more in depth and more focused.
CHRISTOPHER KING: And the intent really was to make the parental part of this much more intentional, much more intense to connect the dots between what the parents are doing and what the kids are getting when they're going to what, by all accounts, is one of the highest quality Head Start Programs in the country.
WESTERVELT: That's Christopher King, director of the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources at the University of Texas at Austin. He's assessing Career Advance and is an advisor to the project.
KING: What the people who support Head Start in Tulsa came to realize pretty quickly was what moves the kids' success socially, emotionally, educationally over time and produces a lasting effect is when their parents are also making progress. For example, so if a mother increases her educational attainment while the kids are say 1-year-old, 2-year-old, 3-year-old, that produces not only a positive impact on the kids' progress, but it's one that endures through 3rd grade, let's say.
Same thing with income. If a parent's income goes up by 2 or $3,000 when the kids are young, it has an effect on the kids' progress and it really lasts.
WESTERVELT: Policymakers and researchers across the country will be watching Tulsa's experiment closely. Professor Greg Duncan studies poverty and inequality at the University of California, Irvine. Duncan wants to see the long term effects of the Tulsa project but he thinks they're on the right track.
GREG DUNCAN: It's more intensive and more expensive but it's exactly that kind of more intensive experience that it takes really to make a different for things like parenting.
WESTERVELT: But some critics have said, you know, why should we financially reward people for doing what, you know, we all have to do as adults - show up, be on time, do your work? You know, these are life skills most of us don't get extra financial bonuses for.
DUNCAN: But if you look over the last 40 years, there's been massive macroeconomic changes that have worked to the disadvantage of low-skill workers. The globalization, computerization, technological change have really hollowed out the middle of the job distribution, so there's an abundance of service sector jobs, there are relatively substantial numbers of fairly high-skilled jobs. But all the kinds of jobs that used to be around that required repetitive tasks like assembly line work, filing, and those kind of jobs are just gone.
WESTERVELT: Duncan also says wage levels for low-income workers are the same or lower than they were 30 to 40 years ago. Yet expenses for raising kids are much higher than they used to be.
DUNCAN: It's to the point now if you look at the difference between say the top and bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, families at the top are spending more than $9,000 per child per year on enrichment expenditures; high-quality childcare, summer camp, lessons, things like that which is about eight times as much as families in the bottom 20 percent.
WESTERVELT: Greg, as we've heard, the women in Tulsa's Career Advance program, you know, like low-income people all over have a lot on their plates and a lot of stresses. Your current research is looking at the impact of financial stresses on the brain development of children. What, if anything, do we know now about that impact of stress on learning and cognition for both the parents and their kids?
DUNCAN: When you talk about a $3,000 car repair that you can only cover half of, let's say, that stresses out low-income families a lot and affects their cognition, whereas for high-income families that's not true. We know considerably less about the direct affects of stress on kids. We know when the situation is very stressful in the sense of an orphanage or abuse or neglect, that can have very substantial impacts on kids.
But for more normal kind of stresses that low-income families experience, which are extra burdensome compared to the kind of stresses that higher-income families experience, we need to know more.
WESTERVELT: That's Greg Duncan. He's an economist and professor of education at the University of California, Irvine. More cities are building up these two-generation programs, including Boston, L.A. and San Antonio. The funding to start Tulsa's Career Advance came from the foundation of billionaire oil and gas philanthropist George Kaiser, a longtime supporter of early childhood programs.
But the Federal Department of Health and Human Services is now supporting it. So the big question is, how you scale up and expand these kinds of programs to more cities and areas that don't have an oil billionaire ready to get it off the ground.
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