86% of heads of household made significant progress toward starting school, jobs, or savings


71% of families have shown measurable improvement on confusion and order in the home


78% of children have shown measurable improvement on self-regulation

Family Goals

100% of families have set and attained their family goals

Families Disrupting the Cycle of Poverty: Coaching with an Intergenerational Lens

By Elisabeth Babcock, MCRP, PhD and Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga, MPA


By Jack Shonkoff, M.D.

Spoiler alert—the work described in this report stakes out new territory in a field that is desperately searching for fresh thinking and breakthrough impacts. And if the architects of this new model are on the right track–as I suspect they are—this is simply a preview of a more promising future for millions of children and families facing the debilitating burdens of poverty.

The intergenerational transmission of significant economic insecurity and its adverse effects on educational achievement and lifelong health are well known and difficult to overcome. Moreover, two-generation strategies for reducing poverty are not a new idea, yet their effective implementation remains an enduring challenge across a multitude of policies and delivery systems. Most of these program models seek to coordinate services focused on the needs of children with those that are focused on the needs of their parents. In some cases this involves greater attention to inter-agency communication, planning, and data sharing. In other cases, it simply means the co-location of services.

EMPath is staking out a fundamentally different approach. Rather than trying to connect programs that work on parenting skills with services that target job training, the Intergen Project is pioneering an integrated strategy focused on strengthening the core capabilities (such as self-regulation and executive function skills) that are foundational to both. This highly innovative model is informed by credible scientific knowledge about how these capacities are built, how adversity disrupts their underlying neuro-circuitry, and how effective scaffolding, coaching, and practice can get them back on track. It is grounded in a deep understanding of how children develop in an environment of relationships and how the ability of parents to meet their own life goals is inextricably intertwined with the well-being of their children.

Beth Babcock and Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga have produced a remarkably important report. It describes the work of a unique “action tank” that is delivering services and influencing policies informed by science and shaped by rigorous analysis. The authors and their colleagues are model builders and tool developers. Their vision is bold and their approach is thoughtful. They are incorporating insights from the biological and social sciences into an on-the-ground, collaborative process with the clients they serve.

The pages that follow provide an opportunity to peer inside an organization that is leading the way in developing more effective approaches to moving adults from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. Even more exciting, the Intergen Project is testing the compelling hypothesis that the key to achieving breakthrough outcomes for children facing significant economic and social adversity is to support the adults who care for them to transform their own lives.

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is the Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor of Child Health and Development at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital; and Director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Executive Summary

This report provides a comprehensive analysis of the various ways in which poverty can affect families, and lays out the intergenerational model EMPath has developed to combat these effects.

The stresses of poverty affect families at three interacting levels:

  • The Outcomes Level: Poverty affects families’ educational, career, health, and financial outcomes. These effects are intergenerational: parents’ and their children’s outcomes impact each other.

  • The Inner-Self Level: Poverty affects families’ development of specific skills and mindsets necessary for navigating the complex path out of poverty: namely, self-regulation skills and the sense of self. These effects are also intergenerational: these skills and mindsets are developed in the context of the family, and each family member’s skills and mindsets can impact others in the family.

  • The Family Level: Poverty affects families’ relationships, communication, and alignment (but not bonds). Poverty can be isolating for individuals, making it more difficult for them to consider themselves in the context of their families.

In order to disrupt the intergenerational effects of poverty, EMPath has developed a model for working with whole families in a way that addresses all three levels. An expansion of EMPath’s successful Mobility Mentoring® model, the Intergenerational Mobility Project (The Intergen Project) incorporates assessment, goal-setting, coaching, and incentives for each individual in the family, as well as for the family as a whole.

Incorporating years of experience working with low-income individuals with the foremost academic research on what moves people forward, and engaging the families themselves in the co-design of the tools and process, a suite of three tools has been developed that provide the basis for work with:

  • Each adult in the family (the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency®),
  • Each child in the family (the Child Bridge to a Brighter Future™), and
  • The family as a whole (the Family Carpool Lane Tool™).

This suite of tools has been used with families at EMPath, and initial findings are promising. Although only a limited number of families have been involved with the project as of the publication of this report, preliminary outcomes and feedback from families were strong enough to warrant the sharing of the tools and description of their theoretical underpinnings.

Throughout the brief, findings from the academic literature are used alongside quotes from families participating in EMPath’s programs, culled from interviews and focus groups. The authors have purposefully privileged these direct statements from families, as they provide some of the most important learning we have on the subject of poverty’s effects on families.

The goal of this brief is to spark discussion in the field about the importance of working from an intergenerational lens. EMPath will continue to spread the Intergen Project to more families, both within EMPath and with selected partners. This work will provide important information about how and where the project can best be scaled.

Innovation in Action

The Intergenerational Mobility Project

Made in collaboration with the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, this video profiles the Intergenerational Mobility Project and its use of a coaching framework to strengthen families’ ability to navigate the complexities of poverty. Drawing on parents’ desire to advocate for their children and be case managers of their own lives, mentors and families use the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency® to plan for the future. When parents can align and prioritize goals for their family’s stability, well-being, education, finances, and career, they build a solid foundation for their children’s future and move across the economic divide.

The Challenge

What will it take to truly disrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty? Many organizations and researchers have attempted to tackle specific facets of inequality—in education, healthcare, or economic mobility—but few have sought to tackle the larger issue of the transfer of poverty from one generation to the next. Current interventions that focus on either children or adults have made modest improvements on individual outcomes, but these piecemeal efforts have failed to produce sustained change. The Intergen Project aims to significantly improve outcomes for low-income children and families in educational success and economic mobility. The approach is rooted in the best academic research on poverty and its effects on the brain, and in decades of firsthand experience working with low-income families. The Intergen Project enhances the capacity of adults with limited education and low income to not only attain goals that move them toward economic independence, but also to build strong foundations for a more promising future for their children.

The model is an expansion of EMPath’s successful adult coaching model, Mobility Mentoring®. The centerpiece of Mobility Mentoring is the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency®, a visual tool that guides goal-setting across five domains critical to self-sufficiency: family stability, well-being, education and training, financial management, and employment and career management. A developmentally appropriate version of the Bridge has been developed for children and is currently being tested. In addition, a family-focused assessment tool has also been developed to support family-wide goals. The Intergen Project is moving into its second year of piloting with families engaged in EMPath programs in Boston, MA.

Theory of Change

Members of a family are interconnected and mutually reinforcing and must be engaged together to achieve sustainable, intergenerational economic and educational success. Achieving self-sufficiency requires coordination of multiple facets that are interrelated and optimized when addressed in concert with the others.

The hypothesis being tested in this project is that families will move faster toward economic stability and educational attainment when they set and achieve individual and family-level goals together. In addition, the Intergen Project team expects that shared goal-setting will increase family cohesion and organization.

The “How”

Implementation of the Intergen Project includes at least a yearlong series of structured meetings during which coaches work with a family to:

  • assess each family member’s strengths and needs,
  • set and monitor individual and family goals,
  • coach each family member toward his/her goals, and
  • incentivize goal achievement.

EMPath Team Members

Nicki Ruiz de Luzuriaga

Associate Vice President of Mobility Mentoring Specialty & Capacity Building


Stephanie Brueck

Coordinator, Intergenerational Mobility Project



The Intergen Project was designed with support from the Frontiers of Innovation at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.