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Regional Matters

September 9, 2021

Rural Spotlight: Creating Family Economic Security in Western Maryland

Rural Spotlight

This post is part of our new Rural Spotlight series, where we explore solutions to the economic challenges faced by rural communities in the Fifth District.

Introduction

Poverty has remained persistently high in rural areas since the 1960s when these data were first officially tracked. According to estimates from the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS), the nonmetropolitan poverty rate was 15.4 percent, compared with 11.9 percent in metro areas. Rural poverty can often be attributed to poor access to employment opportunities and low educational attainment, among other factors.

Nationwide, rural communities are adopting a new approach to help families break the cycle of poverty. Often referred to as two-generation, intergenerational, multigenerational, or whole-family strategies, this holistic approach concurrently addresses the needs of entire families living together. A rural community action agency (CAA) in Garrett County, Maryland, has been at the forefront of this model — its pioneering strategy has received national acclaim and is constantly being studied, replicated, and adapted.

Garrett County Community Action Committee

Garrett County encompasses close to 650 square miles with a population of 28,582 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. (See Appendix.) The county’s poverty rate is 10.4 percent, compared to the state’s rate of 9.2 percent. Moreover, the county’s economic activity centers largely on seasonal tourism and outdoor recreation, as it is home to a ski resort and Deep Creek Lake, a popular summer destination with large lakeside homes and resorts. This tourism economy frequently gives the incomplete impression that Garrett County’s residents are better off than those in neighboring jurisdictions, which are among some of the poorest in Maryland.

The Garrett County Community Action Committee (GCCAC) is a CAA in the mountainous westernmost region of Maryland. GCCAC’s mission is “to improve the quality of life for people in need by empowering them to become more self-sufficient and by providing essential services in collaboration and cooperation with partners.” CAAs are public nonprofit organizations founded by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act to fight poverty as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. They are supported primarily through congressional appropriations such as the Community Service Block Grant that is distributed to states and local agencies to support a wide range of community-based activities to reduce poverty. GCCAC provides a broad range of programs for individuals and families including early childhood education and Head Start programs; housing assistance such as repair services, energy assistance, and homebuying counseling; financial education; and aging, health, and nutrition services. Many rural CAAs like Garrett County’s also serve as the only transportation provider and affordable housing developer in isolated communities of poverty.

The 2Gen Approach

In 2009, the GCCAC launched what is today a nationally recognized “two-generation model” or “2Gen approach” to holistically address poverty in rural communities by combining supportive housing, Head Start, transportation services, and workforce development strategies. Focusing on a complete household’s needs, the GCCAC’s strategy links children to high-quality early education and their parents to services that build financial security such as job coaching, adult education, and affordable health care. In 2013, GCCAC was selected to participate in a multiyear 2Gen approach pilot funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy based in Baltimore that provides grants to innovative strategies to address childhood poverty.

Although GCCAC’s mission had not changed in its 56 years, more than a decade ago, Executive Director Duane Yoder started to redesign the organization’s culture by blending services, operations, and employee responsibilities. Prior to 2Gen implementation, GCCAC’s staff titles and job functions were linked to the individual programs such as Head Start teacher or energy assistance manager. GCCAC’s efforts to fully address a family’s needs were hampered by minimal coordination across assistance programs with potentially conflicting missions, reporting requirements, and priorities. Yoder recognized that outcomes for families were less than optimal through the existing service delivery model and decided to make a change. Siloed programs were attempting to assist families, with adults and their children receiving varied and distinct programs and staff at GCCAC giving little coordination and potentially conflicting missions, reporting requirements, and priorities.

Yoder is quick to point out that “2Gen is not a program, it’s an approach.” GCCAC’s original focus was families enrolled in Early Head Start, Head Start, and child care because the agency was already collecting data on those children’s development from various assessments, surveys, and school readiness scores. When GCCAC examined child progress and readiness scores along with key household stability indicators, they found that higher scores on early childhood outcomes were positively correlated with stronger household wellness. “Addressing multigenerational poverty by focusing on both the child and adult is such a commonsense idea,” Yoder explains. “When our [2Gen] data in Garrett County showed that children entering kindergarten with high readiness scores were in households where our data also showed family wellness, our approach appeared to be validated.”

In order to commit fully to the new integrated service model, GCCAC started implementing cross-functional programming. They trained staff in 2Gen approaches and activities. The organization developed broader multifunction job descriptions, emphasized data-driven decision-making, and identified outcomes to be tracked and measured. The staff were told that they were working toward a purpose and mission and not employed by a single program.

 

Listen to podcast interview with Duane Yoder, executive director of the Garrett County Community Action Committee

Download MP3 (13.4 MB, 14:41)

An Integrated Intake Process and Centralized Data Management

A critical component of GCCAC’s 2Gen approach centers on developing individualized objectives, goals, and strategies for families to create with a GCCAC staff coordinator. These “Pathway Plans” are developed with an integrated customer intake process and self-assessment tool. The agency developed proprietary data intake and centralized database management software called “empowOR,” which automatically determines program eligibilities for the entire household. It then recommends a set of bundled services for families such as Head Start enrollment for the children and workforce training and mental health support for the parents. GCCAC’s team then assists each household with enrolling in these services offered either by their agency or with outside partners such as Maryland departments of human services or labor.

GCCAC and its service partners are tracking progress of over 15 life skill dimensions such as family relations, education, and employment, as well as more tangible stability outcomes such as permanent housing and household incomes. From June 2018 to June 2019, GCCAC served 232 families while tracking their progress of completing their household Pathway Plans. Sixty-five percent of the families had achieved substantial to some progress meeting their plan’s goal.

GCCAC’s approach has yielded many success stories in the 12 years since its launch. One such example is Angela, a mother of two boys who once resided in a deteriorating trailer with minimal heat in Garrett County with a yearly average of 102 inches of snow. Angela came to the CAA initially seeking energy assistance only. Through GCCAC’s integrated intake approach that fully assessed Angela’s needs and program eligibility, she not only received assistance with energy bills and home weatherization, but she also met with a coordinator who developed a Pathway Plan for her to return to school. She is now a certified geriatric nursing assistant at a local hospital, and she and her husband are using the housing counseling services to work toward purchasing their own home.

The 2Gen Approach Applied More Broadly

In 2017, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, through executive order, established the Two-Generation Family Economic Security Commission. The following year, the commission recommended a two-generation program officer within the state’s department of human services to create a pathway from poverty to mobility and address the social determinates that contribute to family poverty such as housing, health, education, and transportation. The state provided financial support in 2020 to each of Maryland’s 17 CAAs to advance 2Gen policies.

2Gen is not exclusive to rural communities but has been replicated in metropolitan and urban communities across the nation. Still, according to Yoder, the approach is particularly well-suited to rural communities such as Garrett County because its multiservice organization already provides a number of pre-bundled services including transportation and housing access. Furthermore, there is a greater need for community service providers to integrate and coordinate programs in more isolated rural communities with limited resources and capacity to scale up initiatives.

Conclusion

In the 12 years since GCCAC implemented the 2Gen approach, the rural CAA has regularly hosted policymakers and practitioners to study the initiative and replicate in communities across the country. The model has gained national recognition and is supported by both the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Aspen Institute. Unfortunately, like almost everything in the past 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on the strategy. According to Yoder, the model works best when there is direct in-person interactions and ongoing assessments between the staff and the families. The need to socially distance and work remotely has interfered with this to some extent. However, GCCAC continues to adapt to meet its multigenerational clients’ needs. “There is an inclination of service providers and policymakers to believe that families should adjust to the system,” concludes Yoder. “It is exactly the reverse, the systems must adapt to the families’ needs.”


Appendix

The following section includes demographic and economic data for Garrett County.

Demographic and Education Statistics

Geography

Total Population

% of Population Age 25-64

% Population (25-64) with High School Diploma or Higher

% Population (25-64) with Bachelor's Degree or Higher

Garrett County

28,852

51.5%

92.0%

21.1%

Maryland

6,055,802

53.1%

91.3%

41.7%

Fifth District

32,962,831

52.2%

90.2%

36.1%

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau Vintage 2020 County Population Totals, American Community Survey 2019 5-Year Estimates; author’s calculations.

Employment Statistics

Geography

Employment/Population Ratio (25-64)

Labor Force Participation Rate
(25-64)

Unemployment Rate, December 2019

Unemployment Rate, December 2020

Garrett County

74.6%

77.3%

4.3%

6.3%

Maryland

78.3%

82.2%

3.0%

6.7%

Fifth District

74.0%

78.3%

2.9%

6.2%

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2019 5-Year Estimates; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Local Area Unemployment Statistics; author’s calculations.
Note: December unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted.

Interested in reading more articles like this one? Check out Our Regional Focus, where you can find additional research and analysis on rural communities, education, labor force participation, and other pressing economic issues that affect our communities.

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