KIPS Blog: Parenting Assessment in Practice & Research

How Parenting Can Win the War on Poverty

Posted by Phil Gordon on Thu, Jan 09, 2014 @ 02:02 PM

Fifty years ago this week in his State of the Union address, the New President, Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty.  As I write this the press and politicians are abuzz debating “America’s Longest War.”  We can all agree that this long war has not been won.   For a timeline showing the many battles and skirmishes in this war on poverty follow this link.  

While preparing this piece, I recognized that if this is a war, then I have been unknowingly a soldier in it for a long time.  Dr. Jean Mayer was my recruiter.  I met Dr. Mayer when he was President of Tufts University and I was a starting faculty member in Nutrition.   Dr. Mayer is considered by some the father of the U.S. anti-hunger nutrition policy, especially the Food Stamp Program, and even more especially the subsequent nutrition programs aimed at hungry children, like the Woman Infants and Children Program and the School Lunch Program.  If we continue the metaphor, General Mayer may be a more appropriate title, but he was much more a caring fatherly figure in my eyes.  In conversations with Dr. Mayer I came to a much deeper understanding of how hungry children can’t learn and starving children can’t thrive. parenting-assessment-poverty Under-nourished children are thereby destined to a life of poverty.  Thus, seeing that all our children receive adequate nutrition is vital.  As a nutritionist it took me some time to fully understand that, though adequate nutrition is necessary, it alone is certainly insufficient in addressing poverty.  I moved from my nutrition work, to focus on innovative science and math education of inner city children.  There I came to realize that starting with school age children was too late to have a major impact in addressing poverty.  We need to start earlier.  But prior to school, how can this be accomplished?  That is the topic we consider here.

Before proceeding, I feel a need to object to the phrase War on Poverty, and ask your forgiveness for using it still here. Wars eventually end with a treaty, but we are unlikely to ever come to agreeable terms with poverty.  So for me, the metaphor is inappropriate.  I recognize that Presidents Kennedy and then Johnson used the term to mobilize the nation.  However, for our currently war-weary nation, it is probably best if we stop using the term War.  We need a better metaphor for our efforts to address the human, social and economic tragedy that is poverty.

We Are Not Winning.  Surrender or Fight On? 

 According to the National Poverty Center ( in the late 1950s about 22.5% of the US population was living in poverty.  This rate fell throughout the 1960s to a low of 11.1 per cent in 1973.  Since that time the poverty rate has drifted between 11% and 15%.   Using data from the U.S. Census, I’ve plotted the results from 1999 to 2011.


One can see the impact of the two recessions starting in 2001 with the technology bubble bursting.  Then before we fully recovered, another rise starting in 2007, reflecting the worst recession we have had since the great depression of the 1930’s.  If this is a war, we clearly aren’t winning.   Even worse than the numbers shown above, one of the most substantive changes has been who is poor.  Prior to the war on poverty, the elderly comprised the largest portion of the poor.  Now it is unmarried women and their children. 

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty

More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.

If the goal is to reduce poverty, this change is very troubling. The children of the poor are more likely to become poor adults.  

Parenting is Our Secret Weapon

Beyond the nutrition programs, the War on Poverty included educational interventions aimed at providing children of the poor a chance to rise out of poverty.  The effort correctly recognized the need to start early and give children from low-income families a chance to get ready for school. Because once a child falls behind, catching up is difficult.  The most notable programs were Head Start for children 3 to 5 years, and later developed Early Head Start for pregnant women and children birth to 3 years.  Head Start was modeled after well-researched experimental programs, particularly the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project.  Head Start and Early Head Start aim to provide comprehensive services in supporting families in preparing their children for success in school.  As we have discussed before, the results of the Head Start Program have not fully met expectations.  In my and many others' opinions, one factor that didn’t fully get translated from the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Project were the robust services aimed at parenting quality improvement.  

As we frequently discuss in this blog, the research grows ever stronger that parenting makes a difference in closing the achievement gap for poor children.  For example, one surprising longitudinal study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Early Child Care Research Network, designed to investigate the impact of different types of early childcare on children’s learning over time, found that early parenting quality was the predominant factor in children’s 5th and 6th grade school achievement. 

parenting assessment and learning

This long-term study of over 1000 children included a range of childcare, from parental caregiving to center-based settings like Head Start.  This chart shows the large magnitude of this impact.

The study concluded that:

Parenting was a stronger and more consistent predictor of children’s development than early child care experience.

 [Belsky, et. al. (2007) Are There Long Term Effects from Early Child Care? Child Development 78:681-701]

 Also, another very recent particularly powerful study reported by Helen Neville and colleagues showed that enhancing Head Start with a mere 8 weeks of focused parent intervention resulted in significant impacts on children’s event-related brain potential, as well as a wide range of measurable cognitive, language and behavioral changes.  Working weekly with parents resulted in striking gains with effect sizes rarely seen in interventions focused directly on children.  Rather than summarizing more of this literature, let me point you to two recent brief reviews aimed at general audiences.

The Brookings institute recently released a literature review and report demonstrating that the achievement gap is caused by a “parenting gap.”

We have to hope that, one way or another, parenting takes a more central place on the political stage. Because the stakes are immensely high. The passing down of poverty, generation to generation, is arguably America’s greatest moral flaw. And the hard machinery of the state—schools, scholarships, and laws—is not sufficient for the task of building an opportunity society. Families and the parents that shape them are equally important incubators of opportunity. If we want more equality—of opportunity, of income, of wealth, of occupation—we’ll have to tackle the parenting gap, too.  (Sawhill, Reeves & Howard, 2013)

 For more on the Brookings report, follow this link.  

For anyone interested in the War on Poverty, I recommend the little 137-page book entitled Giving Kids a Fair Chance (A Strategy that Works) by James Heckman from the University of Chicago.  As a Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Heckman’s writing is often highly technical.  However, he wrote this powerful little book for the public.

… both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations. [James Heckman, Giving Kids a Fair Chance (A Strategy that Works) page 4]

The Research is Overwhelming:

1) The stresses and trauma of poverty interfere with the ability of parents to nurture their children.

2)  Reduced quality of parenting dramatically and negatively impacts children’s development and learning.  

3) There are many proven program models that help low income parents better nurture their children.

The Role of Parenting Assessment

As a Noble Prize-winning economist, Heckman also recognizes the importance of measurements:

The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource. So we need better measures of risky family environments in order to achieve more accurate targeting. [James Heckman, Giving Kids a Fair Chance (A Strategy that Works) page 35]

A parenting assessment tool, like the Keys to Interactive Parenting Scale, can identify those parents needing support.  Once parents are identified, assessing parenting can guide the services so they are tailored specifically to the individual family’s strengths and needs.  Ongoing parenting assessments can document progress and identify new opportunities for improvement.  In a world where our efforts need to be justified with outcomes, parenting assessment can provide proof that we are making a difference.


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Tags: Parenting Assessment, assessing parenting, achievement gap, poverty