Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

Mobilizing Science to Reduce Intergenerational Poverty

by James M. Radner and Jack P. Shonkoff

The proposition that local communities can generate innovative strategies to rise out of poverty has a long pedigree. Its roots are embedded in a rich combination of scholarly thought and popular conviction. Its growth is marked by parallel processes of rigorous evaluation and partisan advocacy. A wide variety of place-based initiatives have been inspired by organizing concepts such as collective efficacy and social empowerment and by deep commitments to eliminating structural inequities, combating institutionalized discrimination, building social capital, and advancing social justice. In this context, generations of efforts that began during the War on Poverty of the 1960s and continue to the present day have underscored both the promise and the challenges of community-based efforts to combat entrenched poverty.

As we ponder the future of place-based approaches to social change, four themes provide a promising framework for fresh thinking about the challenges. The first is the complexity of neighborhood poverty, whose diffuse burdens (such as jobs shortages, social and racial exclusion, transportation gaps, violent crime, poor public health, and deficient educational opportunities) all affect each other and demand simultaneous attention.1 The second theme is conflict, which is fueled by disagreements among key stakeholders about objectives, resources, time horizons, and messaging (among others) that can result in deeply entrenched positions that block innovation.2 For example, the War on Poverty’s community action program quickly encountered tensions among public officials and neighborhood leaders over the extent to which the purpose was policy change or program implementation.

The third theme is context, which refers to the challenge of widely applying innovations developed in a particular community that depend on its unique aspects and are therefore difficult to incorporate into sustainable, large-scale policies.3 The fourth and final theme is time, which is reflected in the simple reality that effective community development requires patience for listening and relationship building, while it faces intense pressure for rapid results.4

The aim of this essay is to describe a new approach to reducing intergenerational poverty by mobilizing science to stimulate community-driven innovation. This approach is premised on effective collaboration among scientists, community leaders, and other stakeholders, starting with agreement on ambitious goals and hypotheses about how they can be met. Connected in this shared purpose, communities and their partners can then begin to move along a pathway of practical action and continuous learning toward the co-discovery of effective strategies. This essay elaborates on the four themes outlined above and draws on recent experiences in diverse settings where people are applying this approach to enhance the healthy development of young children.


Advances in the science of early childhood development, including its underlying neurobiology, offer an unprecedented opportunity for communities, families, and their partners to bring sharper focus to their efforts on behalf of vulnerable young children. Although it may appear that introducing new frameworks into an already complex set of dynamics can only complicate the challenges we described above, multiple stakeholders can capitalize on advances in science if they focus on a shared commitment to an explicit set of “stretch outcomes” and then work jointly on developing and testing a “causal theory of change” that links specific actions to those outcomes.

Stretch outcomes are results that represent high but potentially achievable aspirations for the well-being of a defined population.5 Setting stretch outcomes entails agreeing on measurable goals along dimensions that matter to the community and specifying achievement targets (for example, in terms of population percentages) that represent substantial gains over what current practice yields. This is a distinctly different philosophy from the approach adopted by most poverty reduction efforts, which center on the effectiveness of an individual program, assessed by a combination of programmatic outputs, anecdotal examples, and the discovery of measured impacts that are statistically significant yet typically modest in magnitude. In contrast, a stretch outcomes approach focuses on the well-being of a population, as defined by community-specified objectives, which serve as the central criteria for success and drive constant experimentation with combinations of program inputs. Stretch outcomes for a city might include, for example, cutting infant mortality in half over three years, and halving it again over the next three.

The concept of a causal theory of change refers to a testable notion of how a set of new or modified policies and programs can produce specifically targeted stretch outcomes. It begins by identifying assumptions and hypothesized pathways, drawn from a combination of scientific research and community experience, about how to reach important goals, beyond incremental improvement over the status quo. At its best, a productive theory of change serves as a continuously evolving tool for playing with new ideas and promoting collaborative discovery. While relentlessly focusing on stretch outcomes, good theories of change for reducing poverty reflect the complex interactions and reciprocal feedback loops that characterize human development.

When we began collaborating to catalyze innovation in the early childhood arena, we started with extensive interviews of leading researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. These conversations generated a range of potential stretch outcomes, from maternal mental health to family economic stability, but most pointed toward the importance of assuring that every child in each participating community arrives in kindergarten sufficiently prepared to succeed in school. Our plan was to begin with this concept in a variety of settings and encourage each community to develop its own consensus on what specific stretch outcomes it would pursue toward that goal. With that focus in hand, we proceeded to search for barriers to kindergarten readiness in vulnerable children, including variable availability of early learning services. This led to the hypothesis that the problem is not simply access to programs but that the effectiveness of existing services is constrained by the biological consequences of toxic stress—frequent, prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems—that children experience when their families are facing significant economic hardship.6

Our initial theory of change therefore hypothesized that better outcomes would emerge if the current policy emphasis on enriched learning environments for children and parenting education for mothers were augmented by the complementary implementation of specific strategies designed to protect the developing brains of vulnerable young children from the disruptive effects of toxic stress. The knowledge base driving this approach was derived from advances in neuroscience, molecular biology, and epigenetics (the study of biological mechanisms through which environmental influences affect the activation or suppression of gene expression), combined with the cumulative wisdom of decades of practical experience and evaluation data from the field, which highlighted the extent to which significant adversity disrupts brain circuitry and precipitates cognitive, emotional, and behavioral difficulties that interfere with learning.7 As we introduced this theory of change to diverse stakeholders, we found substantial resonance, but also some resistance, as we describe below.


Coalescing around stretch outcomes and a causal theory of change is a community development task that ought to benefit from decades of practical experience and systematic research. In this spirit, the determination of appropriate outcomes requires a consensus definition supported by families, civic leaders, and community-based service providers, as well as policymakers at multiple levels and academic researchers in an array of relevant disciplines. Indeed, the opportunity to define multiple pathways for different subpopulations and outcomes invites inclusion and becomes a way to build shared purpose.

The complexity of this process means that everything could and should be on the table at the outset. Heterogeneous groups can navigate inevitable sources of conflict and work toward consensus if the task is defined from the start as joint discovery, rather than power brokering or winner-take-all decision-making. For example, when a group of initially skeptical community leaders and other stakeholders discussed kindergarten readiness outcomes, they quickly agreed that classroom chaos is an important barrier. This provided an entry point for exploring the role of executive function8 and self-regulation skills, which resonated with practitioners’ observations9 that they are dealing with disrupted development that needs expert management, not “bad” children who should be medicated or expelled from programs.

A broadly embraced theory of change must be co-created, beginning with high aspirations, population-based outcomes, and revisable causal hypotheses. The aim is not to decide whether the community accepts or rejects a predefined program imposed from the outside, but rather to create a welcoming environment that supports the joint development of evolving strategies. One of us recently observed such a process in a neighborhood facing poor health outcomes among immigrants, where health care providers and community residents were able to bridge their differing perspectives by identifying gaps in access to services and then working jointly to develop practitioner checklists and multilingual, immigrant-oriented reference sheets to close those gaps from both ends.

In short, conflict challenges can be transformed into assets by devoting substantial collective effort up front to the invigorating task of defining a set of jointly owned stretch outcomes and a shared theory of change. When these are both in place, the work can shift to collaborative discovery, where heterogeneity is an advantage, as each participant makes distinctive contributions to the learning process. In this context, the community itself plays a vital, ongoing role, not only in co-creating innovative interventions but also in monitoring progress toward stretch outcomes and in stimulating revisions to the theory of change until results match aspirations for all families.10

After consultations among early childhood stakeholders as we described above, we shared the preliminary goal (i.e., assuring school readiness) and theory of change (complementing enrichment with protection) at a workshop including researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and philanthropists. Although the participants were largely from the field of early learning, a strong reaction emerged that stretching on the learning dimension only—even merely as an initial step—was not sufficient, given the way early experiences also affect physical and mental health. Consequently, the group’s overall goal now includes both building readiness for school success and strengthening foundations for lifelong health, and community partners are currently defining stretch outcomes on both dimensions.

In a parallel fashion, in order to narrow the focus for designing pilots, the workshop identified causal pathways that would serve both learning and health objectives simultaneously. The theory of change thus progressed from a general emphasis on the need to balance developmental enrichment with protection against the burdens of severe adversity to a more nuanced strategy designed to build the capacities of caregivers to buffer stress. Two sources of such capacity then stood out: (1) children’s and adults’ executive functioning and self-regulatory skills, and (2) family economic stability. Because adult executive functioning and related skills are important to both parenting and employability (hence economic stability), participants saw exciting leverage11 in targeting such skills.12


If an innovation strategy is aligned around the needs of a specific population or subgroup in a single community, the task of producing comparable results in other places can be formidable. That said, successful mastery of this challenge begins with embracing it. Private sector experience suggests that innovation most often emerges from problem solving in a specific context. A good place to start in the social sphere is to formulate stretch outcomes in a single community that is open to new ideas and to take the distinctive constraints and opportunities within that setting as the basis for collaborative problem solving aimed at those outcomes.13

Paradoxically, the very approach that engages problem solvers in a unique local environment can also position them to achieve broader impact. If the stakeholder model includes clusters of communities working with external stakeholders (such as policymakers, researchers, or social entrepreneurs), then goals can be defined for multiple subpopulations through an inclusive theory of change. Within this framework, each community can set its own stretch outcomes, and multiple communities can share hypotheses, strategies, and results. Researchers and other external stakeholders are then positioned to broadly apply discoveries from their participation in specific community settings.

One Comment

  1. Ria Lawson Reply

    Just want to say how timely yor essay is and how relevant the approach to energising a new way of tackling poverty not only ecomonic but poverty of positive early childhood experiences that have as you ably articulate been more than toxic for the vulnerable children and their families. I am at once stimulated and challenged by your approach to a shared purpose and responsibility to reduce the inter generational horrors in our society. The use of science to stir a common cord amongst all stake holders; the inclusive approach; the development of stretch outcomes alongside power with; a strength based approach with shared and collaborative problem solving – more than one way to skin a cat as we say in Australia – all of this excites me as I begin my new job as Senior Early Childhood Development Coordinator working to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable poor children and their families in the communities of central Victoria.

    Thank you very much for your inspiring, sensible and I reckon, do-able approach to the betterment of our society …

    St Luke’s Anglicare

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