Two UB social work researchers have received a nearly $345,000 grant from the Erie County Department of Social Services (ECDSS) to evaluate the Live Well Erie Workforce Development Pilot Project.
The two-year Workforce Development Project, with a total budget of $10 million, is an initiative designed to help those working in the county transition from receiving social service benefits to self-sufficiency.
Entry-level employees receiving social service benefits face what is known as a “benefits cliff” when offered promotions or given the opportunity to move into higher-paying jobs. The cliff is a labor barrier separating potential advancement from the reality of a pay rise that disqualifies them from benefits they were previously eligible for.
The project aims to minimize the risks associated with absorbing these reductions by providing food, housing, child care and health care supplements to people who are “jumping” off the cliff to self-sufficiency. The program combines job training, career and life coaching, and educational opportunities with added benefits. The goal is to enable greater economic independence, increased financial stability and better health outcomes.
The School of Social Work will partner with ECDSS to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the project. The aim is to determine whether the additional support reduces fears of a “benefit ceiling” and leads to self-sufficiency.
This evaluation includes the development of a real-time feedback loop that measures effectiveness as the program is implemented, according to Wooksoo Kim, an associate professor at the School of Social Work, who, as principal investigator of the grant, will work with her UB colleague, Chris St. Vil, assistant professor of social work.
“Many program evaluations focus exclusively on program results, but we conduct program evaluations in real time, so we are able to tweak the program as we go,” Kim says. “As our participants experience changes in their lives, we are then able to respond to them, while maintaining the goals of the program.”
This is what St. Vil calls “internalized quality assurance”.
“We talk to participants regularly and collect data every three months to uncover everyday idiosyncrasies that can foster self-sufficiency,” he says. “It’s easy to think anecdotally about the barriers in the workforce that keep people from facing ‘cliff face’ realities, but with real-time feedback, we’re able to continually improve the program during its two-year course.”
In addition to its new assessment instrument, the program also sets itself apart from similar projects by working with people who are currently employed. Workforce development projects typically set goals to integrate unemployed participants into the work culture, but the Erie County project has approximately 200 active participants who were recommended for the program by their employers. or the ECDDS.
None of the participants receive cash benefits, but all receive at least one benefit reflected in the four areas of complementary support.
“Even a small increase in pay can translate into a loss of benefits far greater than what is realized in a weekly salary,” Kim says. “That’s why we also have to tackle the psychological aspects of the ‘cliff’ because giving up that advantage is scary.”
St. Vil says that’s where life coaches can help.
“The life coaches experienced exactly what the participants are dealing with,” he says. “They can share stories and help with the adjustment.”
Kim and St. Vil say the county’s program and accompanying assessment are cutting-edge instruments in the fight against poverty.
“Social work as a profession has many layers, but one goal among many is to help people become self-reliant,” says Kim. “We have an exciting opportunity to partner with the county as researchers to help western New Yorkers with this.”
“It’s a unique model,” adds St. Vil. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”