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Maine groups look toward 'two-generation' approaches to break the cycle of poverty

Nearly 34,000 Maine children live in households that are below the federal poverty level. As advocates try to assist those families, they've begun to embrace an approach called "two-generation." The idea is to support the needs the children, as well as their parents.

On Monday morning, the John T. Gorman Foundation convened a "2-Gen Summit," to explore the effectiveness of this strategy in both rural and urban areas of the state. The organization's CEO, Nicole Witherbee, says that the two-gen approach isn't a new idea, but it's not being used enough in the effort to help the growing number of Maine children who are falling behind.

Nicole Witherbee is the President & CEO of the John T. Gorman Foundation.
courtesy of the John T. Gorman Foundation
Nicole Witherbee is the President & CEO of the John T. Gorman Foundation.

Nicole Witherbee spoke with Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg at the John T. Gorman Foundation/s Maine 2-Gen summit in Freeport on Monday.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nicole Witherbee: More often than not a service is provided to one member of the family when it's identified. And we're not stopping to think about, well, if they need heating assistance, what else is needed in that household? Because feeding people crumbs is not enough to get them where they need to be. And I think the other thing that's really important about utilizing a 2-Gen approach is listening to what the family has to say, they know what their needs are. And when you stop, and you listen to their perspective about their children, or the children that they're taking care of, you get a different solution.

Robbie Feinberg: Can you talk me through what the two generation approach what it looks like in Maine right now, are there particular programs that that you all are seeing that you're excited about?

I'll start with moving families forward. And Bangor, the bank or Housing Authority has a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Bangor, and they offer them a club on site. And they're working with parents on meeting their education and employment goals, and they have a coach, then they're working with the children who get their own coach on their goals. They work with teens, they work with little kids. And then they also have programming for the families together so that they can come together for meals, learn new ways of communicating with each other, meeting each other's needs. And it's been so successful, that we're seeing the children in those families excel in school in a way they weren't before. We're seeing parents connect to employment that actually pays them a living wage. And in fact, a pretty substantial number of them have moved from public housing to homeownership. So if you do it right, and you're really delivering the services, and supports intentionally, it has an enormous impact on the whole family.

I feel like the the success stories that we hear it's often a cohort of 20 people and like you mentioned as well, these are huge problems across the state. How do you think it can get to a point where you're able to really feel like you're making a big difference statewide from these cohorts? How do you make that jump there?

Well, interestingly enough, that is kind of the John D. Gorman Foundation's theory is that we have the ability to take some risk and to fun things that may or may not pan out and follow them and keep tinkering with them until we know they're right. We can do that for cohorts of 20, maybe even 100 people, but we can't do that for the entire state. But if we can prove it works, if we can evaluate it, and measure the outcomes, we can then give that information to practitioners who can take it and use it in their own work or policymakers who can take it to another scale. And we've seen in the last few years, new legislation. We've seen more money being dedicated to 2-Gen coaches across the state. The Children's cabinet has emphasized a 2-Gen approach now so we really are seeing it play out more publicly beyond just the John T. Gorman Foundation.