Key takeaways on reducing intergenerational poverty

The panel discussion of May 6, 2024 in progress
Moderator Amy Goldstein with panelists Isabel Sawhill, Bradley Hardy, Mary Pattillo, Harry Holzer, and Greg Duncan. Source: Paul Morigi for Brookings
Editor's note:

This is a summary of an event held on May 6, 2024. You can watch the full video of the event here.

At any given time over the past decade, about 10 million U.S. children lived in families with incomes below the poverty line. Their experiences with childhood poverty can compromise their health and welfare and also hinder their opportunities for economic mobility in adulthood. On Monday, May 6, the Center for Economic Security and Opportunity at Brookings convened a briefing to highlight the findings of a congressionally mandated report by a committee of the National Academies on reducing intergenerational poverty.

Understanding the drivers of economic mobility

Greg Duncan, professor at UC Irvine, began by setting up the task of the report. That is, “what can we do today for children, their families, their environments that 20 years from now, 30 years from now is going to reduce their chance of being poor when they become adults.” He discussed how the statement of task and the nature of the panel led them to limit themselves to direct evidence. They looked at the effects of programs on outcomes like adult earnings or poverty directly, setting aside research that looked at intermediate outcomes such as test scores or birthweight.

Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and non-resident senior fellow at Brookings, spoke on four areas of the report: education, income, health, and crime. In education, he strongly emphasized that money matters; that increasing spending in the poorest districts and effective post-secondary financial assistance combined with more campus supports would have a significant impact.

For employment, he pointed to the earned income tax credit as one of the most important policies. “The earned income tax credit is a win-win-win program. It puts money in the pockets of people who need it. It also encourages their employment and raises their employment… and it has positive effects on children in those families.”

Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology at Northwestern, talked about the racial and ethnic disparities in intergenerational poverty, noting that Black and Native American children in low-income households are significantly more likely than white children to have low income as adults. She discussed disproportionate exposure to adverse factors, including higher rates of neighborhood violence and poverty experienced by Black and Native American children. She further noted that “Black toddlers are suspended at 2.5 times their representation in the toddler-preschool population.”

Limitations of direct evidence and policies that deserve further exploration

Bradley Hardy, associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and non-resident senior fellow at Brookings, spoke highly of the report and the rigorous standards that were followed in the evidence it included. But he also recognized what those rigorous standards overlook, and what might be beneficial but couldn’t be included. “The burden of direct evidence does maybe deny us the opportunity to admit quite a bit of innovative work in the domain of economic history,” specifically noting the research of Hardy’s coauthor Trevon Logan in examining the long-term impact of Reconstruction-era violence on economic and civic life in the Black community. “We have this growing body of economic history research that’s leveraging newly available data … thinking about the role of lynchings and contemporarily lowered voting participation.”

Both discussants spent significant time considering the limitations of the specific evidentiary standards of the report. Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow emeritus at Brookings, spoke on the omission of early childhood education, a policy widely considered to have a significant impact on economic mobility. She notes that because it is unclear how generalizable many of these studies are, both because of their small scale and the long delay required to observe effects, they couldn’t clearly fit into this report.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The Brookings Institution is financed through the support of a diverse array of foundations, corporations, governments, individuals, as well as an endowment. A list of donors can be found in our annual reports published online here. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are solely those of its author(s) and are not influenced by any donation.