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Can poverty be passed down? A nonprofit tries to break the cycle

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Ayoka Marchan (middle) and her children, including Deji (right), 11, met with EMPath coordinator Stephanie Brueck.Jonathan Wiggs

In some households, poverty is passed down from generation to generation, almost like an inherited trait.

Teri Williams, president of OneUnited Bank, sees it happen among the lower-income Boston residents the bank serves. Often it boils down to bad decisions: people with bad credit who can't get a utilities account use their children's Social Security numbers to get the gas turned on and then can't pay the bills, saddling their children with bad credit before they hit adulthood.

"We've seen that unfortunately too many times," Williams said.

New research suggests that these kinds of actions may be tied to the chronic stress of poverty, which can short-circuit brain development in children. This can limit their ability to plan ahead, control impulses, and juggle multiple tasks — skills that are vital to success in school and work.


Armed with this research, the Boston nonprofit Economic Mobility Pathways, called EMPath, is trying to help break the cycle of poverty by working with parents and children to develop what are known as executive functioning skills. By coaching families, EMPath, formerly called Crittenton Women's Union, hopes to simultaneously equip both generations to do better in school and get better jobs. The skills are intended not only to help parents navigate their way out of poverty but to help them show their children the way out, too.

"This notion that somehow you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the science absolutely refutes that," said Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, who helped EMPath develop the Intergenerational Mobility Project.

Many variables factor into the inability to escape poverty, but how and where children are raised plays a major role. Among children who experience high levels of poverty, 45 percent are poor at age 35, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. Of adults who never experienced poverty as a child, less than 1 percent grow up to be poor.


As part of the EMPath program, parents work toward goals such as saving three months' worth of expenses and finding a job that supports the family. For children, it's about hitting developmental milestones: opening a bank account and following routines by age 5; coming up with multiple ways to solve problems by age 11; identifying a career track and understanding credit and how to pay bills by age 18.

When parents and children hit a goal, EMPath provides incentives, including financial rewards that range from $25 to a few hundred dollars. Getting families to talk about their challenges, and come up with ways to tackle them, is key.

The initial findings, set to be released Tuesday, are limited but promising: During a six-month pilot program, the majority of parents took steps to becoming more self-sufficient, while many of their children achieved goals such as saving money and getting better grades.

Stephanie Gray, 37, grew up on welfare in Dorchester, surrounded by family members struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. She got pregnant at 14 and dropped out of school two years later — and thought her situation was completely normal. Gray's daughter, now 22, had a baby when she was 19.

The trauma of her childhood, Gray said, has been "permanently imprinted" on her.

Jah, 5, drew a picture with his father, Shiloh Jackson, as EMPath coordinator Stephanie Brueck (top, far right) worked with other members of the family.Jonathan Wiggs

But with the help of EMPath, Gray is trying to create a more stable environment for her 12-year-old son and her daughter, who is now attending Bunker Hill Community College. Gray recently got a bachelor's degree in psychology and is working on a master's at Cambridge College, helping her get a raise and move onto a path to become a mental health clinician.


And yet Gray's decision to go to a private school put her $66,000 in debt, and counting. It was a choice she made, and now second-guesses, she said, before she knew anything about money management. She had a job, the school had a good program — why wouldn't she go there? She didn't apply for scholarships, which she now says may have been an unconscious reaction to the stigma tied to accepting government assistance.

It was, in short, a decision that shows the distorted mind-set poverty can create. "I still think and feel like a poor person," Gray said. "These things have to be healed."

Disrupting this pattern of poverty is not just good for families, it's good for the country, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. When children learn the skills to succeed in school, they get better jobs, create a more highly skilled workforce, and generate more economic growth, said Boston Fed economist Robert Triest.

Intergenerational poverty is particularly pronounced in communities of color. Black households in the Boston area have median net assets of only $700, including retirement savings and checking accounts, compared to nearly $257,000 for white families, according to a 2015 report by the Boston Fed.


EMPath was formed by the merger of two 19th-century Boston institutions — the Women's Union and Crittenton — that provided resources for single mothers and immigrants, but for the past decade it has focused on being a "teaching hospital of economic mobility:" gathering research, coaching low-income families, working to shape public policy, and developing tools to combat poverty. More than 50 organizations and agencies, from Goodwill Industries of Northern New England to the World Bank, use EMPath's models, then share their results, creating a kind of open-sourced antipoverty operating system.

"We can be coaches to parents and children, and children and parents can be coaches for each other," said executive director Elisabeth Babcock, "and in doing so, maybe shove a wedge in the intergenerational cycle of poverty."

The cost of the EMPath pilot project, $10,000 per family per year on average, is significant, and some question if that money would be better used for early education or other antipoverty programs. Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., cautioned that many initially promising antipoverty programs have not had a lasting impact. Still, she said, the skills EMPath is seeking to instill are important to disrupting poverty.

"It's a vicious circle," she said. "If you don't have those skills, you're much more likely to be poor. And if you're poor, you're much more likely to not acquire those skills."

Ayoka Marchan looked over her daughter’s Bridge to a Brighter Future chart during a home visit.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.