Individuals are whole people made up of a rich mix of physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual parts. Individuals exist within families, and families are the heart of our communities. In many ways, working families earning low wages are the backbone of our country, working the jobs that keep America running.
But many American families are struggling. Despite an uptick in the economy, more than 8.5 million children currently live in poverty, and they are often concentrated in neighborhoods where at least a third of all families live in poverty. Others are just a paycheck away from falling into poverty. For these families, a simple change in circumstance for a family member — a reduction in working hours, an illness, even the need for a car repair — affects the entire family's long-term well-being.
At Ascend at the Aspen Institute and the Pascale Sykes Foundation, we collaborate with families, nonprofits, government agencies, advocacy groups, and others to advance family well-being through a whole family or two-generation (2Gen) approach. Such an approach addresses challenges through the lens of whole people living in intact families, equipping children and the adults in their lives with the tools to collectively set and achieve goals, strengthen relationships with each other, and establish the stability of the family unit so that every member is able to reach his or her full potential.
In our work every day, we see the many meaningful ways in which a whole family approach benefits families and creates opportunities for service organizations to reach vulnerable populations, scale their work, and fulfill their missions. Here are five things your agency can do to shape its work in ways that will benefit families and support family members as they define, create, and realize the futures of which they dream.
1. Recognize the multi-faceted nature of human aspirations. Issues affecting family well-being such as economic stability, educational success, housing security, and health all overlap and impact one another. For instance, parents may notice that the financial challenges they struggle with are affecting their performance at work, their relationships with each other, and their children's school performance. Developing a plan to improve a family's financial stability in such a scenario must also factor in how parents or caregivers manage their careers, relationships, and time spent with their children. The tools and services designed to support families must look at parents and caregivers holistically, as both individuals and as members of a family.
2. Be intentional about working with every member of the family. Outdated models of service provision that require, say, a constituent to be an unmarried female or have an income that falls below a certain threshold tend to result in a crisis-oriented approach to service delivery. Too often with these models, a family doesn't qualify for help unless it is coming apart or has fallen into poverty. But because families are comprised of individuals, individual family members' challenges (and successes) are often a function of the dynamics in the larger unit. When we encourage members of a family to work together to support each other’s goals, we are helping to strengthen the bonds within the family and, in doing so, facilitating long-term family stability before a family falls into crisis.
3. Tailor services and support to families' goals. After working with families to establish goals, service providers should work together to equip each family with the tools and social supports needed to reach those goals. But remember, an approach to service provision that works well for one family may not work for a different family. Families know themselves and what they hope to achieve better than anyone else, which means service providers need to listen to families if they hope to effectively support those families as they work toward their goals. Again, when families are encouraged to plan their own future, they are more invested in the steps needed to get there.
4. Prioritize relationships between family members to create lasting results. Young people perform better in school and later in life when they have a reliable network of people in their lives — peers, family members, teachers, coaches, mentors — whom they can tap for advice and support. Our work has shown this is also true for families. For example, in interviews we conducted with formerly incarcerated women, the women often stressed the pivotal role of relationships with members of their extended families in helping them navigate the transition from incarceration back into society, pursue college or a credential, and persist in the face of challenges and hardship. As they succeeded and rebuilt their lives, many of the women also became a source of social capital in their families and communities. The same is true of a family we worked with that wanted to develop a healthier lifestyle. Once goals had been established and family members had agreed to them, family members held each other accountable for achieving them, providing support and encouragement to each other along the way. And once family members started to see improvement in their own health, they decided to give back some of what they had been given by serving as mentors for other families with similar aspirations. Bottom line: Social capital is a resource that grows.
5. Emphasize collaboration. In our work, we've seen how separate funding streams for service providers tend to create a fragmented approach to the provision of services that is not only detrimental to providers but also weakens families. Whether related to health care, housing, or school, families often have to travel from location to location to receive needed services. This can put a heavy and sometimes insurmountable burden on people who work full-time, or who face transportation or language barriers, preventing them from seeking support. What's more, the advice they receive often is not coordinated and may even conflict with the advice received from another agency, be impractical, or just plain overwhelm them.
At the Pascale Sykes Foundation, we believe strongly in the value of formal, collaborative partnerships among service providers that support a whole family approach and encourage multiple agencies to come together to provide a full spectrum of services designed to move families closer to their goals. In such a model, agencies meet regularly to manage and modify plans, share data, and synchronize their efforts to better serve families. They also work together to measure behavioral outcomes for the adults and children they serve — a crucial component of any whole family approach. Instead of operating individually, service providers in a collaboration are freed from seeing one another as competitors and instead value each other as teammates who share resources, discuss and set priorities, and accomplish goals together. Indeed, preliminary evidence shows that the stronger the collaboration between service providers, the greater the chances their collective efforts will lead to family success.
Whole family approaches have demonstrated that families living in poverty can succeed despite the obstacles they face. Organizations that adopt such an approach can expect to make a bigger, more meaningful difference in their communities. To do so, however, service providers, government agencies, and funders must work collaboratively — with one another and the families they are trying to support. It's the best way to advance our respective missions and create lasting change for the communities we serve.