Work Advancement and Support Center Demonstration


The wages and earnings of low-income workers have been stagnant or declining in real terms for approximately 35 years. Nationwide, the labor market-driven growth of the low-wage workforce has become a major issue for both the business community and the public. Low-wage workers represent a significant segment of the nation’s workforce: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a quarter of the nation’s labor force earns about $11 per hour. From both employers’ and employees’ perspectives, the rate of job loss and job turnover among low-wage workers — and the associated personal, family, and business costs — are high. At the same time, the rate of advancement of low-wage workers into better-paying jobs is low, and many of those who “play by the rules” — by working full-time, year-round — cannot support a family. Research evidence shows that work supports — which include child care subsidies, public health insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and other related programs — can substantially boost income and improve family well-being, both while low-wage workers are employed and during periods of unemployment.

With a renewed national commitment to supporting low-income workers and the unemployed within the context of a deep recession, the efforts of public, nonprofit, and other social service agencies to assist low-income families in accessing work supports need to be as effective as possible.  Likewise, low-wage workers need advancement coaching to help them take the steps to increase their earnings through job advancement.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The Work Advancement and Support Center (WASC) Demonstration was designed to build the capacity of the workforce and welfare systems to provide employment retention and advancement services, and the full package of financial work supports, to low-wage workers and low-income, reemployed dislocated workers. Sites in the demonstration created WASC units of colocated workforce and welfare staff, who were housed in One-Stop Career Centers (renamed American Job Centers in 2012) created by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. They also simplified the application procedures for financial work supports and made it easier for working people to gain access to them. In addition to these innovations, one site built new linkages with employers in order to develop and deliver career advancement services — and work supports — directly at the work site.

MDRC, which provided the sites with technical assistance to help them build strong programs, conducted a rigorous evaluation to assess WASC program operations and the impact of program services on job retention, wage progression and career advancement, and family income and poverty. This knowledge-development agenda, together with the institutional change in the workforce and welfare systems, was the key motivating force behind the support that the U.S. Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services and the Ford, Rockefeller, and Robert Wood Johnson foundations provided to MDRC for this project.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The decision to build the demonstration within the One-Stop system, rather than in welfare or other agencies, was based in part on the view that retention and advancement services should become an integral part of the workforce system and should serve all workers, including employed low-wage workers. It also recognized that many people who are eligible for work supports are employed and have no relationship to the welfare system — but many work supports are still administered through welfare agencies. This led to agreement that the One-Stop system is the most promising institution in which to locate (and build) both job retention and advancement services and access to work supports for low-wage workers.

In each of the three full demonstration sites, Workforce Investment Act staff, focused on retention and advancement services, worked closely with welfare staff, who were relocated into a single unit and who administered work supports for WASC participants. At these sites, between 700 and 1,200 eligible workers were randomly assigned either to the program group (50 percent) or the control group (50 percent). Those in the control group continued to be eligible for any existing services that they were previously eligible to receive at the One-Stop and elsewhere, but they were not eligible for the services provided by the new WASC unit. The WASC retention and advancement services aimed to move low-wage and reemployed dislocated workers into better-paying jobs; to help employers reduce job turnover and related costs and to have trained employees for second- and third-level job openings; and to simplify access to work supports through the One-Stops. The Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service provided a waiver to two demonstration sites, to encourage states and localities to experiment with simplification of the food stamp program rules, and the research measured the effects of this simplification.

In early 2005, Montgomery County (Dayton), OH, and San Diego County (Chula Vista), CA, launched pilot WASC services. Full implementation began in fall 2005. A third site, Bridgeport, CT, launched its program in spring of 2006. In addition, a fourth site in Fort Worth, TX, was selected for an implementation study because it offered the promising innovation of delivering WASC services entirely at employee work sites, with the cooperation of participating employers.

The research had two main components: (1) an implementation analysis to assess how the sites operated the program in the “real world,” adapting it to their differing local circumstances, and (2) an impact analysis of the program’s effects on participants’ labor market outcomes and income, based on a random assignment research design. Data sources for the study included individual participant background and follow-up surveys; administrative records on earnings and work supports; interviews and focus groups with WASC staff, participants, and their employers; case file reviews; student records on enrollment in postsecondary education; and program observations.

Together, the implementation and impact research strands allowed the study to answer such questions as: Could the WASC approach operate on a large scale and in diverse localities? Did it increase participants’ acquisition of the skills needed in high-demand occupations? Did it reduce participants’ job turnover and increase their employment retention? Did it enable participants to find better-paying jobs with advancement opportunities? Did it increase low-income workers’ receipt of financial work supports? And did it enable workers receiving work supports to advance to better-paying positions that make those supports unnecessary? What was the role of employers in connecting their entry-level and lower-wage workers to work supports and skill-building opportunities?

The first major report from the project describes the rationale behind the program intervention, the program’s goals and strategies, and the early planning challenges encountered, and choices made, by the first two sites selected for the demonstration — Dayton and San Diego. The second report explores how WASC career coaches help low-wage workers understand the complex interactions between earnings and eligibility for work support programs and guide them to make the best advancement decisions possible. The third report, released in June 2009, offers impact findings from the first year of implementation at two sites: Dayton and San Diego. The fourth report, released in October 2010, describes the food stamp quality control study that was conducted as part of the demonstration and at the request of the Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service in two of the sites (Dayton, OH, and San Diego, CA).The fifth report, released in April 2011, describes implementation findings from the WASC program in Fort Worth, Texas where services were delivered at the worksite for groups of low-wage workers.  The sixth and final report, released in September 2012, presents findings on the program effects on the use of work supports, on participation in training, and on employment and earnings for up to four years after individuals entered the study.