Employment Retention and Advancement


The federal welfare overhaul of 1996 ushered in myriad policy changes aimed at getting low-income parents off public assistance and into employment. These changes — especially cash welfare’s transformation from an entitlement into a time-limited benefit contingent on work participation — have intensified the need to help low-income families become economically self-sufficient and remain so in the long term. Although a fair amount is known about how to help welfare recipients prepare for and find jobs in the first place, the Employment Retention and Advancement (ERA) project was a comprehensive effort to discover what approaches help — and do not help — welfare recipients and other low-income people stay steadily employed and advance in their jobs.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Launched in 1999, the ERA project encompassed more than a dozen demonstration programs and used a rigorous research design to analyze the implementation and impacts of each one. With technical assistance from MDRC and The Lewin Group, most of the programs built on prior initiatives. Because the programs' aims and target populations varied, so did the services they provided:

  • Advancement programs focused on helping low-income workers move into better jobs by offering services such as career counseling and referrals to education and training.
  • Placement and retention programs aimed to help participants — mostly “hard-to-employ” people, such as welfare recipients with disabilities or substance abuse problems — to find and hold jobs.
  • “Mixed goals” programs, targeted primarily at welfare recipients who were searching for jobs, focused on job placement, retention, and advancement in that order.

The project’s evaluation component investigated each program in the following areas:

  • Implementation. What services were provided, how were they delivered, who received them, and how were problems addressed?
  • Impacts. To what extent did each program improve employment retention, advancement, and other key outcomes? Looking across programs, which approaches were most effective, and for whom?

In addition, for selected programs, costs and benefits were examined, investigating areas such as: How much did the program cost? How large were its benefits relative to its costs from the perspectives of participants, taxpayers, and society as a whole?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

  ERA was really made up of many studies, one for each program. Each study used a random assignment research design in which people in the target population were randomly selected to enroll in the program or to be in a control group that was not eligible for the program’s services. Because people were assigned to the groups at random at the beginning of the study, any differences between them that subsequently emerged can be attributed to the program. More than 45,000 individuals were part of the study across the various sites.

A total of 16 ERA models were implemented in eight states:

  • California
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • South Carolina
  • Texas

The evaluation draws on administrative and fiscal records, surveys of participants, and field visits to the sites.