Current and former welfare recipients often have very unstable employment experiences. They find low-wage work but then quickly lose these jobs (either voluntarily or not), have trouble finding another job, and are unable to achieve earnings gains, even over time. This practitioner brief offers program administrators – particularly those managing employment retention and advancement programs – practical advice on how to design and implement policies that turn a recent job loss into an opportunity to find a better job. It is based on the experiences of 12 programs in the national Employment Retention and Advancement (ERA) evaluation conducted by MDRC for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with support from the U.S. Department of Labor. A central lesson from this evaluation is that retention and advancement programs for this population confront very rapid and high rates of job loss despite the services provided and must therefore focus as much, if not more, on reemploying program participants as on helping them advance in existing jobs.
The programs in the ERA evaluation offer a variety of intervention models and local contexts from which to draw lessons. Most programs were designed to improve the employment outcomes of current or former recipients, primarily single mothers, of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF NF). Some targeted individuals who were already working when they enrolled in the program, while others first connected with individuals when they were unemployed. From site to site, a broad range of institutions delivered services, including workforce development and welfare agencies; community colleges; and for-profit, nonprofit, and community-based organizations. The programs operated from 2000 through 2004, and the study follow-up period extended until 2007. While the labor market was fairly challenging during this period, economic conditions were not as dire as today, and unemployment levels were not as high.
To examine the economic impacts of each ERA program, the evaluation used a random assignment design, whereby individuals were randomly assigned to either a program group or a control group. The specific services that were provided varied from program to program (Box 2), but, in each site, the evaluation tested whether a package of services – which typically included assessments, one-on-one staff assistance, job search assistance, and job-related counseling – could improve individuals' employment retention and advancement outcomes, compared with the services and supports that were generally available in the communities. Overall, 3 of the 12 programs increased employment and earnings levels for participants, compared with control group levels.