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Anne Brady and Julia Coffman of Harvard Family Research Project summarize the long-term evidence about two-generational interventions aimed at improving child development, parenting, and family economics.

Family support and parent education are often mentioned as ways to ameliorate poverty's effects and help families achieve economic self-sufficiency (Larner, 1995; Smith, 1992, 1995). The effectiveness of multiple-target initiatives aimed at improving child development, parenting, and family self-sufficiency is currently being debated (Barnes, Goodson, & Layzer, 1995; Smith, 1992, 1995; St. Pierre, Layzer, & Barnes, 1995). These initiatives are called two-generation programs because they work with both children and parents. In a recent review of six of these programs, St. Pierre, Layzer, and Barnes concluded that “the short-term [our emphasis] results ... indicate mixed and modest results in ... improving the economic self-sufficiency of parents” (p. 76). To explore this link further and to examine more long-term outcomes, we examined programs contained in the HFRP Outcomes Evaluation Database for evidence of effects on families' economic status. (See textbox.)

Of the thirty-two programs in our Database that we designated as having some features of parent education and support programs, seven seek to improve parenting and help families move toward economic self-sufficiency (Avance, 1973–present; Child and Family Resource Program, 1973–1983 ; Yale Child Welfare Research Program, 1967–1972; Mailman II: Home vs. Nursery Interventions for Teen Mothers, 1977–1980; Prenatal/Early Infancy Project, 1978–1982; Project Redirection Demonstration, 1980–1983; and the Comprehensive Child Development Program, 1988–1994); three of these programs are also reviewed by St. Pierre and colleagues. While most of the thirty-two programs served low-income families and addressed poverty issues through referrals to other social service agencies, few measured improved economic status as a direct program outcome.

The HFRP Outcomes Evaluation Database

The HFRP Outcomes Evaluation Database compiles detailed information about evaluations of preventive, family-oriented programs serving children and youth. The Database includes experimental and quasi-experimental evaluations of programs to (a) improve parenting, (b) facilitate parents' use of social support networks and more formal community resources, and (c) maximize family functioning and adaptation.

The seven programs focusing on improving participants' economic status provided services to improve employment, education, and welfare dependency outcomes. For example, Project Redirection Demonstration emphasized returning teen mothers to school, providing them with job search skills, and enrolling them in job training. Home visitors developed plans to achieve education and employment goals and followed up on mothers' progress.

Further Reading

Halpern, R. (1990). Parent support and education programs. Children and Youth Services Review, 12, 285–308.

McLoyd, V. C. (1995). Poverty, parenting, and policy: Meeting the support needs of poor parents. In H. E. Fitzgerald, B. M. Lester, & B. Zuckerman (Eds.), Children of poverty: Research, health, and policy issues (pp. 269–303). New York: Garland Publishing.

St. Pierre, R. G., Layzer, J. I., & Barnes, H. V. (1995). Two-generation programs: Design, cost, and short-term effectiveness. The Future of the Children, 5(3), 76–93.

Analysis of Outcomes

Our analysis of the seven programs reveals that all had various rates of both short- and long-term success in helping families (usually defined as mother-child dyads) attain greater economic self-sufficiency. Several successful outcomes emerged:

Employment Outcomes


  • Mothers older than 19 years of age had higher employment rates than comparison mothers (CFRP, Prenatal/Early Infancy Project, Project Redirection Demonstration, and Yale programs).

  • In a 10-year follow-up of the Yale program, more program mothers were employed full-time than comparison mothers.

  • Significantly more program mothers in the Mailman II program returned to work or school after 1 or 2 years in the program.

Education Outcomes


  • More program than comparison mothers in Project Redirection Demonstration had either enrolled in or completed school/GED after 1 program year.

  • Mothers who participated in Avance were more likely to participate in GED or ESL courses.

  • Program mothers in the Yale program were more likely to pursue education beyond high school.

Welfare Dependency Outcomes


  • Project Redirection Demonstration showed a decrease in program families receiving AFDC 2 years after program termination.

Lessons Learned

What can we learn from these evaluation results about how best to design and evaluate programs to promote family economic self-sufficiency? Our analysis, combined with findings from the literature on parenting programs and poverty show:


  • Comprehensive and collaborative parenting programs are better equipped to address poverty issues than less comprehensive programs. Referrals to outside services such as GED programs and job training are not enough. If we do not address the concrete, survival issues facing families in economic difficulty, we are likely to fail in our efforts to improve family lives in a lasting way (McLoyd, 1995).

  • Programs with professional, highly trained home visitors seem to be more successful than those employing indigenous lay helpers (Halpern,1990).

  • Results with implications for family economic self-sufficiency may not be observed until several years have passed after program enrollment - a sleeper effect. Mothers enrolling in school or job-training do not show economic improvement until they finish their education and move on to employment. Longitudinal evaluations more accurately depict this effect.

  • High intensity services are most effective. Families enrolled in the Yale program had one of four service providers continuously available and mothers had a home visitor (usually a social worker) who was considered to be their worker. A caution must be applied here: high intensity and long-term interventions may, in the short run, interfere with women's efforts to advance their education and obtain employment (Halpern, 1990), again highlighting a need for a long-term examination of program effects.

The mixed results of evaluations of two-generation programs and others (cf. High/Scope Perry Preschool 27-year-old follow-up) clearly suggest that we must examine these programs longitudinally. The field has not yet answered all the questions about the effectiveness of two-generation programs in moving families toward economic self-sufficiency. Most of the current research evidence does not look at the long-term effects of these initiatives; the research that does take a longitudinal perspective on these programs suggests some payoff. It will be important to focus this longitudinal research on child as well as parent outcomes to determine if these programs fulfill their promise of longer-term positive effects for both generations.


Anne Brady, Research Coordinator, HFRP

Julia Coffman, Research Specialist, HFRP

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