Innovation in Action

The Intergenerational Mobility Project

Helping families achieve self-sufficiency together

The Intergenerational Mobility Project (“The Intergen Project”), a collaborative effort between the Center on the Developing Child and EMPath*, has set out with a bold mission to disrupt the intergenerational transmission of poverty. By applying science to social service program design, the Intergen Project seeks to mitigate the effects of poverty and its associated stressors in order to support motivated low-income families as they work their way across the economic divide. This metric-based, mentor-led, incentivized intervention expands on a proven adult-focused coaching model in a comprehensive approach that supports individual family members as they identify their unique goals and aligns the whole family around a shared set of outcomes.

*Formerly Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU).

This video tells the story of the Intergenerational Mobility Project and its use of a coaching framework to strengthen families’ ability to navigate the complexities of poverty.

The Problem

What is economic mobility, and what are the skills needed to achieve it? Learn more in this video, featuring Center Director Dr. Jack Shonkoff.

What will it take to truly disrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty? Many organizations and researchers have attempted to tackle specific facets of inequality—in education, healthcare, or economic mobility—but few have sought to tackle the larger issue of the transfer of poverty from one generation to the next. Current interventions that focus on either children or adults have made modest improvements on individual outcomes, but these piecemeal efforts have failed to produce sustained change. The Intergen Project aims to significantly improve outcomes for low-income children and families in educational success and economic mobility. The approach is rooted in the best academic research on poverty and its effects on the brain, and in decades of firsthand experience working with low-income families. The Intergen Project enhances the capacity of adults with limited education and low income to not only attain goals that move them toward economic independence, but also to build strong foundations for a more promising future for their children.

The questions the Intergen Project will answer include:

  • Does an adult-based goal-setting model work when it is implemented with adults and children together? Who does it work for?
  • Does this model impact executive function, economic stability, educational attainment, and family functioning?

The Theory of Change

Beth Babcock, President and CEO of EMPath, explains why addressing the whole family — not just adults — is crucial to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Members of a family are interconnected and mutually reinforcing and must be engaged together to achieve sustainable, intergenerational economic and educational success. Achieving self-sufficiency requires coordination of multiple facets that are interrelated and optimized when addressed in concert with the others.

The hypothesis being tested in this project is that families will move faster toward economic stability and educational attainment when they set and achieve individual and family-level goals together. In addition, the Intergen Project team expects that shared goal-setting will increase family cohesion and organization, and that regular meetings with other families in the Intergen Project will decrease social isolation. Read more about how theories of change guide program design and evaluation.

Intervention: The “How”

Crittenton Women’s Union program participants. Photo courtesy of Holly Ladd.
EMPath program participants. Photo courtesy of Holly Ladd.

Implementation of the Intergen Project includes a yearlong series of structured meetings during which coaches work with a family to:

  • assess each family member’s strengths and needs,
  • set and monitor individual and family goals,
  • recognize achievements, and
  • build social networks in regular meetings with other Intergen Project families.

The model is an expansion of EMPath’s successful adult coaching model, Mobility Mentoring® (MM). The centerpiece of MM is the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency™ (the “Bridge”), a visual tool that guides goal-setting across five domains critical to self-sufficiency:  family stability, well-being, education and training, financial management, and employment and career management. A developmentally appropriate version of the Bridge has been developed for children and is currently being tested. In addition, a family-focused assessment tool has also been developed to support family-wide goals. The Intergen Project is moving into its second year of piloting with families engaged in EMPath programs in Boston, MA.

What We’ve Learned

While it is early in the testing phase and the sample size is small, some lessons have been learned:

  • Setting matters. Initially, family meetings were to be held at an early education setting, but the project team learned that in order to engage all family members, meetings must be held in the home, often in evenings or on weekends.
  • Other adult family members are interested. The original model, Mobility Mentoring, targets and engages female heads of household, but through the Intergen Project testing, the team has learned that partners, adolescents, and grandparents are very interested in setting and achieving goals, too.
  • Tools and structure are very important. Families like using structured self-assessment tools to get organized and stay on track. In fact, the family-focused assessment tool was developed in response to a need that families identified. This tool now provides a visual snapshot of the road blocks that may be holding a family back, specific domains where goals can be set, and the ability for families to monitor their progress over time.

Beth Babcock, President and CEO of EMPath (formerly CWU), spoke at TEDxBeaconStreet about taking a science-informed approach to breaking the cycle of poverty. Her talk explains how poverty impairs the development of executive function in the brain, and she shares the success of new coaching models that allow clients to practice and rebuild their executive function skills.

Additional Information