• Engage: #2Gen

Two generations. One future.

Social Capital is an Accelerator for Family Stability And Strength

Download Social Capital is an Accelerator for Family Stability And Strength in full text.

Take 2-Gen Action

  • Look to leaders: Survey the field and take lessons from social capital leaders such as FII and Circles USA.
  • Conduct a network analysis: how do you or your organization connect to other local and national leaders and programs? What are the relevant points of intersection and how might you connect – or connect others – to those groups?
  • Develop methods to listen to families: Ask parents about the type of support they are seeking, and find ways to let their goals and dreams shape your programming.
  • Create spaces for relationship-building: Weekly potlucks, guest speaker events, community meetings, and parent groups are all great opportunities to cultivate strong connections among families.


Resources to Tap

Education, economic assets, and health and well-being are all critical elements of the two-generation approach, but social capital can be a catalytic force in driving change for low-income families. Social capital is the network of people and institutions upon which a family relies.

Ascend Fellows and Network partners across the country are emphasizing different forms of social capital to help families achieve their dreams: bonding social capital, which provides peer support and positive peer pressure (or reinforcement of social expectations), and linking social capital, which connects people to information and resources beyond their immediate circle. Bridging social capital, which refers to social networks between groups representing diverse interests, is also important. While research has shown that social capital effectively provides support and expands opportunities for low-income families, there is much room to imagine, implement, and test approaches that create supportive networks within a two-generation framework.16

Acelero Learning Chief Operating Officer and Ascend Fellow Henry Wilde relays a story about the economic benefits, often multigenerational, that can come from social connections: “When I went to business school, on the first day, the dean said, ‘Look to your left, look to your right.’ You expected that he's going to say one of these people won't be here next year, but instead he says, ‘You're going to hire the child of one of these people.’"

Institutional Social Capital Building

Similarly, Jorge Blandón, vice president at the Family Independence Initiative (FII), explains how institutional support opened up possibilities for his future. “I joined ABC, A Better Chance program, an organization that takes inner-city kids and puts them in high-performing high schools where they have a better chance of going to college,” Blandón says. “So here's this kid from the Bronx that ends up in this small town of Western Massachusetts called Amherst. I start to get a glance into what middle class households could look like. I get folks to rally around me to apply to this small liberal arts school called Amherst College, and I end up getting in and all of a sudden I'm exposed to a whole different world — it’s a whole different network.” After having grown up in a supportive, working class family, Blandón, who now works on social capital building at FII, graduated from college with the help of an exceptional financial aid program: “They said, ‘Pay us whenever, zero interest. We don’t care, pay us if you want.’ It was a moral loan. I end up graduating from Amherst and got my first job because of those networks.”

Leveraging the resources supplied by relationships and institutions can help families take a significant leap toward economic stability. However, programmatically, helping families develop trusting, supportive ties is a delicate and complicated endeavor. Creating meaningful connections between people’s stories, life experiences, and demanding schedules presents a challenge to providers who seek to implement social capital-building initiatives.

Building Trust to Build Meaningful Connections

In some communities, people hesitate to trust people they do not know. Findings from Ascend-commissioned focus groups with low- and moderate-income mothers and their teenage children found that the mothers “show strong desire for self-reliance and independence…and aspire to resolve their issues on their own.”17  However, mothers also spoke about the need for stronger connections to a greater range of supports that would help both their children and themselves achieve educational success.

Programs can create warm introductory environments to break through barriers. Sandra Gutierrez, national director of Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors, an evidence-based training program for Latino parents of young children, says: “One of the things that inspires me is that parents who go through any of these [Ascend Network] programs form a network community amongst themselves when you create a welcoming environment in your program where people can talk about what's really going on in their lives. People are hungry for that opportunity.”

The Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) recognizes this desire for a supportive community among low-income families. CITC is both made up of and serves Alaska Native People in urban Anchorage, where more than 22 percent live. They are often disconnected from the life and culture on Alaskan tribal lands, and from each other, due to transportation issues and cultural shifts. CITC very intentionally incorporates the cultures and values of the people they serve into its programming. A major facet of this work is building culturally appropriate social capital into its classroom programming, including fatherhood training and postsecondary health care courses. Using a cohort style, CITC provides wraparound services and aims to conduct all teaching in a single classroom, which allows for the sharing of social support, knowledge, and resources between peers and multiple generations. CITC focuses on both supporting and respecting the cultures and families within its programs.

Testing the Impact of Social Capital

The Ascend Network is testing the impact of social capital in two-generation programs and refining approaches to building it. Acelero Learning — with the help of Ascend Fellows Mario Small, PhD, professor at Harvard University, and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, PhD, at Northwestern University — is conducting a study to determine if facilitating social capital development among parents could help improve the early school success of their children. The research team has created an intervention that builds mutual support between parents in an early learning center in North Philadelphia, with the hope that the bonds formed and responsibilities shared between the involved parents (such as walking children to and from school) will improve their children’s attendance and thus performance. This study is part of Acelero Learning’s revamped efforts to prioritize social capital and make use of its momentum-building effects on Head Start families.

According to Wilde, Head Start programs have “historically had the model where the thought was that [the program] gave value to families.” He explains, “A family was the recipient of the case worker, who sent you in the right direction to go find the solution that you as a low-income family needed. As we think more about what it looks like to address poverty, for us it has to include that element of building social capital.”

In the Acelero Learning intervention, parents from one classroom were asked to select another parent from their child’s class to be their “parent partner.” Partners lived in the same neighborhood and were expected to contact each other if their child would be absent from class, with the hope that the partner could assist in the case of a transportation or work emergency. Additionally, one of the partners would be responsible for attending a monthly center parent meeting. Two other classrooms were part of the intervention, with one classroom acting as the “control” (no intervention) and the other including a family advocate who facilitated parent relationships less formally.

Initial findings from the intervention include a vast improvement in parent engagement at the monthly parent meeting, at which parent attendance increased from 15 percent to 54 percent. Acelero is currently tracking the daily on-time attendance of the children in each of the classes and will use the information to inform the organization’s future attempts to build community and parent support into its programs.

Tapping the Resilience and Autonomy of Parents

A common thread throughout these initiatives could serve as a rule of practice for programs interested in social capital: while facilitating the development of social capital, organizations must allow for and protect the autonomy of parents, acknowledging the resilience and ingenuity present within families and communities.

FII fully embraces this principle. The organization created a platform for social and economic mobility, but families within communities decide what that looks like for themselves and define their own goals through data sharing and collection. FII provides opportunities for communities to gather together around common goals and supplies, bridging social capital through information and project funding. For example, through its digital platform UpTogether, FII offers a place for community members to ask each other for support and provide advice and solutions. Additionally, through the Torchlight Prize, FII lifts up and rewards the work of self-organized community members around the country who are designing innovative solutions to the problems their low-income communities face.

“There are some beautiful communities out there just waiting to be recognized and leveraged and invested in,” says Blandón. “Ultimately that leads to ... the sense of dignity: I'm in control of my community. I'm taking care of my home, my children, my neighbor's children. That's the lens through which we're approaching it.”


16  See Small, M.L. (2009). Weak or strong ties. Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

17  Lake, C. & Carpenter, B. (2013, November 4). Voices for Two-Generation Success: Seeking Stable Futures [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from b.3cdn.net/ascend/bebb1079e3b2b0e466_efm6yngd1.pdf.


Download Social Capital is an Accelerator for Family Stability And Strength in full text.