Poverty is a chicken-or-egg problem. When is the best stage in the human lifecycle at which to intervene to break cycles of poverty? Is it better to help adults or children?

In Inequality in America, James Heckman convincingly argues that programs should be squarely focused on wellbeing of young children aged 0-5. If early childhood is the most impactful period of development—where poverty programs have the highest ROI—and funding is limited, nearly all poverty assistance funding should be directed to early childhood programs.

But. How is the assistance delivered? How can we most effectively and efficiently ensure wellbeing during early childhood? The statist answer is universal, certified childcare starting from the cradle. Let experts raise the babies.

A different answer that affirms the value of family is to make parenting easier and poverty healthier. In this view, assistance should be targeted to adults with children aged 0-5 who are at risk of unhealthy development. A starting point for studying this population would be the demographics of parents whose children are removed by Child Protective Services (CPS). Risk factors for membership in this group include being young, low-income, people of color, and drug users. In short, disadvantaged people in their 20s.

Incidentally, the same group of people who parent unhealthy young children tend to cause other problems in society. People in their 20s are wrecking balls. The decade of one’s 20s is the most common age to commit crimes, start a drug addiction [check this], contract an STD [check this], immigrate illegally, or have kids outside of a healthy relationship. It also the time people are most likely to make a world-changing discovery, complete a college degree, or start an innovative company. And it’s the loneliest, most forsaken decade of one’s life.

In our 20s, we reap the seeds sown in our own early childhood, and sow the seeds of the next generation. (Note, parenting comes much earlier for less-advantaged folks.) This is why I want to focus on catalyzing healthy growth and parenting in early adulthood.