Paths to Advancement for Single Parents

By Cynthia Miller, Victoria Deitch, Aaron Hill

Between 2000 and 2003, the Employment Retention and Advancement (ERA) project identified and implemented a diverse set of innovative models designed to promote employment stability and wage or earnings progression among low-income individuals, mostly current or former welfare recipients. The project’s goal was to determine which strategies could help low-wage workers stay employed and advance over time — and which strategies seem not to work.

Over a dozen different ERA program models have now been evaluated using experimental, random assignment research designs, and three of the programs increased single parents’ employment and earnings. This report augments the ERA project’s experimental findings by examining the work, education, and training experiences of single parents targeted by the studied programs. Although the analysis is descriptive only and cannot be used to identify the exact causes of advancement, examining the characteristics of single parents who advance and the pathways by which they do so can inform the design of the next generation of retention and advancement programs.

Key Findings

  • Few parents advanced over time, and most of the remaining parents either spent long periods out of work or lost ground. One in four single parents advanced over the three-year follow-up period. One in three parents did not work in Year 3 (in jobs covered by the unemployment insurance system), and the remaining 42 percent were working during Year 3 but had not advanced.

  • Parents who advanced worked more stably over the period than other parents. These parents experienced more rapid earnings growth when they did work, both from tenure at the same job and especially from changing jobs. They were more educated and somewhat younger than other parents and were more likely to participate in education and training activities during the first year of the follow-up period.

  • Parents who did not work during Year 3 had very high rates of employment instability. One in three left work in any given quarter during the follow-up period. These parents had lower education levels than other parents and were somewhat older. When they did work, they tended to work in very low-wage jobs with few offered benefits.

  • In terms of demographic characteristics and experiences, parents who worked but had not advanced were between these two extremes (that is, between parents who advanced and those who did not work in Year 3). A key way in which they differed from those who advanced was that they tended to have lower rates of earnings growth while working, particularly from job changing. In addition, they were less likely by the last year of follow-up to work in "good" jobs.

  • Job changing is an important route to advancement. Quarterly earnings gains for parents were typically much larger from changing jobs than from staying at the same job.
Miller, Cynthia, Victoria Deitch, and Aaron Hill. 2010. Paths to Advancement for Single Parents. New York: MDRC.