Nearly a year after COVID-19 took root in the United States, Americans are still dealing with the pandemic’s economic fallout. In January 2021, more than 10 million Americans were unemployed, up from roughly 5.8 million a year earlier. On this episode of On the Evidence, four guests discuss an increasingly popular approach for helping people find jobs and achieve other, related goals that provide economic security, such as getting a GED, buying a car, and improving a credit score. The approach combines two related services called coaching and navigation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with Mathematica to better understand what coaching and navigation look like in practice, how the approaches are helping people through remote services during the pandemic, how they can be used to address racial and social inequities, and what evidence currently exists about their efficacy. In addition to hosting a virtual convening and producing a series of issue briefs on the topic, Mathematica invited the following experts involved with coaching and navigation to share their experiences on this episode of On the Evidence:
- Ty Wright, a community engagement coordinator at AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School, who has benefited from coaching and navigation
- Lucy Smart, the program coordinator of parent engagement for LIFT-DC, who also provides coaching services
- Brian Marroquin, a senior program director for LIFT, a national nonprofit that provides coaching and navigation services in four cities
- Sheena McConnell, a senior fellow at Mathematica who studies employment programs that help vulnerable families
Listen to the full episode below.
[PREVIEW CLIP FROM TY WRIGHT]
I set the goals and then my coach will follow through. So, she'll check in. How's everything going? You know, did you do what you said you was going to do? So, I never want to disappoint anybody. I don't like wasting people’s time. So, if somebody is going to help me out, I'm going to do my best to do what I'm supposed to do. So, I just don't like wasting time, but every goal that I set, I accomplish them.
I’m J.B. Wogan from Mathematica, and welcome back to On the Evidence, a show that examines what we know about today’s most urgent challenges and how we can make progress in addressing them.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic helped push the unemployment rate in the United States from 3.5 percent in February to nearly 15 percent in April. Relative to that high last spring, things have gotten better. But even in January of 2021, after two rounds of stimulus packages from Congress to help soften the blow of business closures and temporary layoffs, more than 10 million Americans were unemployed, up from roughly 5.8 million a year earlier.
A lot of people are hurting and will need help as the economy recovers. On this episode of On the Evidence, we’re going to talk about two increasingly popular approaches for helping people find jobs and achieve other, related goals that provide economic security, goals like getting a GED or buying a car or improving your credit score. These approaches predate the pandemic and current distressed economy but may be especially important in the next couple of years.
The approaches are called coaching and navigation. Coaches and navigators are sometimes the same person and coaching and navigation are often offered by the same organization. Coaches work in partnership with clients to help them set goals and work towards those goals. The goals could be to develop skills, find jobs, move up a career ladder, or manage their finances more effectively. Navigators help the person identify other resources and supports, like childcare, health services, and transportation. The two roles are complementary and sometimes performed by the same person or organization.
The clients of programs that offer coaching and navigation are often economically disadvantaged. Compared to the general population, they’re more likely to be Black, Latino, or other people of color who have dealt with systems and structures that perpetuate racial inequities. And when they seek support services, they typically encounter a complex and fragmented network of siloed organizations. So, it helps to have an expert on your side who can help you navigate the bureaucratic maze and access to the resources you need.
We’ll get more into this in a second, but one important feature of coaching and navigation—relative to traditional case management—is that the client sets the agenda. The client picks the goals. It’s meant to be less about complying with program rules and more about empowering someone to solve their own problems and become who they want to become.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is partnering with Mathematica to better understand what coaching and navigation looks like in practice, how the approaches are helping people through remote services during the pandemic, how they can be used to address racial and social inequities, and what evidence currently exists about their efficacy.
In other words, do coaching and navigation help people increase their income, improve their economic status, and achieve other, related financial and economic goals?
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mathematica recently published a series of briefs about coaching and navigation services, which were based on insights surfaced during a virtual convening in the summer of 2020. That convening featured a diverse set of experts, including researchers, foundation staff, coaches, navigators, and people who had received coaching and navigation services.
On this episode, you’re going to hear from some of those same experts.
Let’s start with Ty Wright, a mother of three who currently receives coaching and navigation services from LIFT, a national nonprofit with four locations, including in Washington, D.C., where Ty lives.
Ty learned about LIFT from an advertisement on the elevator door of her daughter’s preschool.
And at that moment, I was going through a phase where I had lost my job. And I didn't know what, you know, what to do. Then I found out that I had thyroid disease, so it was just like, a lot of things that was going on, and my mind was racing.
Ty wanted to get back to work and need help updating her resume, so she decided to call about setting up an appointment. She reached Lucy Smart, who is the program coordinator of parent engagement for the LIFT DC office. Lucy provides some coaching and navigation support, but she’s also the general liaison to parents. Lucy put Ty in touch with a coach, and right from the start, Ty felt a connection.
I'm going to be honest, you know, when you meet people, you don't know that you’ll mesh so well. Like, everybody at LIFT is just like one big family. When I met Lucy, then when I met my coach, it was just like, I go in there and I was going through the process of trying to get custody of my son. So, I go in there, we had talked and then I started crying and then we laughed and we joked, and she just used to always say, you know, no matter what's going on, you always look at the brighter side of things. And I'm just like, you know, having somebody that’s not family that I can talk to, or who can understand me and just listen to me and give me advice. It kind of helped out. And whenever I needed anything, you know, Lucy was there.
Ty started working with LIFT in the fall of 2018. She and her coach met on a monthly basis. They still do, though during the pandemic, those sessions are virtual.
Ty’s experience illustrates the coaching relationship in practice. She wanted to get back to work, so her coach recommended she apply for a job at Appletree, the place where her daughter was in school. LIFT helped her update her resume, prepare for the job interview, and get her appropriate business attire for the interview.
And it made a difference. Ty got the job. She’s now a community engagement coordinator, which means that she approaches other local nonprofits in the area about building partnerships with the school.
Getting back to work was one of Ty’s goals. She also wanted to improve her health. When she started working with her coach, she had to take two medications daily for her thyroid disease and faced the prospect of surgery. But between the new job and regular meditation, she’s been able to reduce her stress levels. Because stress can make a thyroid disorder worse, her improved state of mind has benefited her thyroid, too, allowing her to switch to only one medication a day.
Ty also wanted to improve her credit score so she could buy a house for her family. By prioritizing on-time credit card payments and careful spending, her score has increased 50 points.
Coaching is good because it helps you say what you're going to do. So, they hold you accountable and I needed it at that moment.
Coaching, particularly as a way to help families in poverty, is still a relatively new approach. But it’s becoming more popular among government agencies and local nonprofits that provide employment assistance and social services in communities across the United States.
Yeah, so I think over the past couple of decades there’s been a growing interest in using coaching. I think it's coming from the perceived failure of the traditional approach.
That’s Sheena McConnell, a senior fellow at Mathematica who studies employment programs that help vulnerable families.
So traditionally, employment programs tell their clients what their goal should be and what they need to do to get to them. So they would say, for example, you really need to get a job. And to get a job, you need to do your resume. You need to brush up on interview skills. You need to apply for some jobs. You do all that, come back, and see me in the next month and we'll see how you did. And in practice, it often didn't work. So, I think there was a real movement to say, what can we do better? Because the traditional approaches aren’t working.
Coaching has garnered interest, Sheena says, because it is a fundamentally different paradigm.
Under coaching, the clients come up with their own goals. The goals are personalized. They mean something to them, and that they come up with the approach of meeting the goals. The coach is there to support, to motivate, and to hold them accountable. But it is the client who comes up with the action plan and the goals.
Ty Wright’s story is emblematic of the kinds of challenges parents face and the goals they set to overcome them, but every person’s circumstances are a little different, says Lucy Smart at LIFT. One advantage of coaching and navigation services is that they can be tailored to each person’s situation.
We go into that intake meeting saying, LIFT is about you. We're not going to give you a checklist of goals to complete or, like, go through a curriculum. You know, the things that you want to work on are what you and your coach work on. So, in that sense, the challenges, when it comes to actual goals and actual things members are working on are unique to everyone. You know, there's common themes in terms of finances, savings, and credit, as well as, you know, there are a lot of members who are pursuing education or career change.
Under the coaching model, goal setting is more than just an exercise. It’s an articulation of a parents’ dreams for their families and themselves. When organizations like LIFT interview a prospective client and assess the person’s strengths and challenges, the parent’s personal and professional aspirations are always one of the strengths, says Brian Marroquin, a senior program director for LIFT.
What we really see when we talk about LIFT providing that hope, money, and love is that often for us hope is an ideation of what the future could look like, you know, being excited about that. But parents already bring a lot of hope for what they want their child's future to look like. They are motivated. You know, these folks will move mountains to build a better future for their child. So that's what the starting point is that they name when they are conducting their intake with us. They know they want to see for the future of their children. And that's where there's room for us to both create goals and action steps and to be motivated around that. But we also want to create room for people to dream for themselves and what they want to see in their immediate future. A lot of people talk about wanting to start that business that maybe they tried before I couldn't get it off the ground or go back to school and have that career. So, I think that hope is a key part of it starting with for their children, but then for themselves. And then, of course, resilience, taking the experience that they have and the successes they've had, but also the challenges they face, you know learning from those, and building that into their goals, that’s what every parent brings to table.
In terms of challenges that parents face, one of the general problems is a lack of information, says Lucy Smart. People often come to LIFT with financial goals like improving their credit score. Most high schools don’t teach students how to budget and how to maintain good credit. Both are important for owning a home or starting a business. Through workshops, LIFT is able to fill those knowledge gaps.
Another common challenge is not having enough time. Here’s Brian Marroquin again.
It’s just the scarcity of time. That starts also with children's needs. Even pre-pandemic, taking kids to doctor's appointments and other activities, and just how hard that can be, especially with limited transportation systems, and not always having a car. So, that is a challenge, but then also their own needs, wanting to tackle those ambitious goals, like going to school, but only being able to study at night after their child's asleep. So that I think actually cuts across all these other more systemic issues. Like, I mentioned transportation and inconsistent childcare, the high price of childcare, and what it means to know that you have that reliable childcare versus what it does to you to always worry that it's going to fall through or that you won't have enough to accomplish your goals, so that's a big part of what I think we talk about at LIFT, the precariousness of the day to day, the 40 percent of Americans that don't have 400 dollars in cash when they need it for an emergency, what those emergencies do to people. So, that's true for LIFT members.
The scarcity of time that Brian talked about relates to one of the reasons why people think coaching can help. Sheena McConnell at Mathematica says the practice is grounded in lessons from cognitive psychology.
Okay so the idea behind coaching is that coaches help people with their self-regulation skills. It’s a bit of jargon, but sometimes people refer to self-regulation skills as soft skills or executive functioning skills, and they’re things like motivation, grit, time management, organization, and regulating emotions. These skills are super important actually in many aspects of our lives, but especially important in finding a job, keeping a job, and doing well on your job.
But psychologists have found that when we're under stress, it is difficult to use these self-regulation skills. They use the word, bandwidth. We don't have the bandwidth to use these skills. And I know myself, when I'm under a lot of stress, that it is really difficult for me to focus on my long-term goals, or even to think about what we're going to eat next week, and I've even been known to snap at my husband. Right?
So, you have those problems when you are under a lot of stress, and research has shown that people who are in poverty and who lack resources have difficulty—the stress of the poverty taxes their bandwidth, so they have difficulty using self-regulation skills. So, just to think about it, if you're a mom and your rent bill is there, but you only have money to pay for groceries or to pay for the rent, but you can't do both, that is an extremely stressful experience.
And add on to that, all the layers of structural racism that many people of color face, it can be very, very difficult to use those important self-regulation skills. But the coaches can really help with that, with their support and with their motivation. They can help people practice those self-regulation skills. And so that's the sort of theory behind why coaching helps.
As you just heard Sheena mention, people receiving coaching services can be short on time, stressed, facing difficult decisions about what to do with scarce resources, navigating a web of programs and services that are not easy to understand or use, and then, on top of all of that, they’re also dealing with systems and structures that perpetuate social and racial inequities.
The issue briefs published by Mathematica and the Gates Foundation point to specific strategies for ensuring that coaching and navigation services play their part in reducing racial inequity. For example, programs can maximize convenience for the clients by accommodating their preferences for the location, length, and appointed time of coaching sessions. Programs can also ensure that the composition of their coaching staff is similar to the composition of the clients, since some research has shown that sharing common backgrounds and experiences improves the effectiveness of the coaching relationship. Finally, programs can provide staff with training on cultural competency, implicit bias, and using trauma-informed practices.
Brian Marroquin at LIFT says achieving racial equity needs to be an explicit aim of coaching and navigation services. Most of LIFT’s members are Black or Latina mothers and the pandemic has disproportionately harmed women like those in LIFT’s programs. According to a report from last summer on the pandemic’s early national impacts, almost two-thirds of Latina women and more than half of Black women with incomes below $35,000 reported losing employment income since the pandemic started. That aligned with what LIFT learned from its members.
We conducted a pulse survey of our parents just days into the quarantine in March and about 70 percent of LIFT families had already experienced wage or job loss due to the virus. Just a few days into it, just with the initial wave of job loss. So that was gut-wrenching to us. That immediately painted the picture of not only what the country was going through, but what particularly Black and Latina women were confronting. And we've seen that play out since the pandemic started.
But you know that only scratched the surface, to be honest. Before the pandemic, inequity was present. Black and Latina women had higher than average unemployment, even during periods of economic growth. So that's not just COVID’s impact. It’s the same precariousness of low wages, including frequent job loss, that just-in-time scheduling, and all those unpredictable hours that make that the day to day so challenging for people of color, and for low-income people at any given time.
So, we have to be able to name these things as we've done in this report, do so intentionally, and also call out places where it's not even something that we just overlook in what creates structural racism. Sometimes it's also a very intentional narrative that's created, the false welfare queen stereotype that actually then sows distrust of people when they're in their moment of need, when they seek out public benefits or seek out other supports. Instead, we lift, we elevate those stories, we call out the injustice, and we trust parents as experts, not create distrust.
Because LIFT’s members were being hit especially hard by the pandemic, their need for assistance increased just as it became impossible to conduct regular in-person coaching sessions. In response, organizations like LIFT have had to adapt and engage members virtually, which comes with tradeoffs.
Coaching is meant to be a personal, collaborative experience. Coaches need to be able to read body language and other social cues that are less obvious by phone or video chat. During the convening last summer, experts told Mathematica that access to and comfort with technology can be barriers. Clients might not have the necessary hardware or apps. The same could be true for coaches or navigators working from home. And digital literacy among the parents wasn’t a given, meaning that parents might need training before they could use videoconferencing, instant messaging, and other digital communication options.
But virtual services have an upside, too. Remote sessions can be more convenient and affordable for the client, who doesn’t have to travel or figure out a childcare arrangement. Ty Wright’s experience during the pandemic gives some indication of the challenges families like hers face and the ways coaching can help.
It's been rough because we in this house and all my kids have asthma. So, I have to really, really be careful because it's not good for them, you know, working and trying to go in the office. Some days, I get kind of nervous. I wasn't even going out. I was doing Instacart, where I would have the food come to the house, because I just didn't feel comfortable and wanted to be in a situation, but LIFT really helped out a lot.
Early in the pandemic, Ty’s aunt and uncle died. The team at LIFT kept checking in with text messages to see how she and her kids were doing. LIFT helped parents like Ty find school supplies and they provided a stipend to make sure parents could afford them. The same was true of food.
And at that time, food was a big thing, it still is now, you know, trying to make sure that you have enough food. And schools were giving away boxes of food, but the stuff in the box, some kids don't eat. So, it's like, you know, I try not to get it because I think it should go to someone really in need, but some of the things in there my kids don't eat. I don't want to waste it when it can go with someone else. But my kids, just the normal stuff: cereal, milk. Milk doesn't last and I have a one year old and he drinks milk as well.
Even outside of the pandemic, LIFT has something called a family goal fund, which provides parents $150 per quarter that families can use for whatever they want. The idea is that parents know best what their needs are and how to spend that money. For someone like Ty, those flexible dollars allow her to purchase milk and cereal without worrying about wasting other food that would come in donated meals.
During in the pandemic, LIFT raised about $1.2 million in donations, which allowed them to provide a temporary expanded version of the family goal fund equal to about $1,500 per family.
Navigation services also played an important role during this time. If parents needed toiletries, a computer, or Internet access at home, LIFT provided information about where and how to get help.
So, LIFT, if I could give them a 100 thumbs up, because they have been my safe zone when I needed some help as well as just reaching out to the team when I'm down or I need someone to talk to.
The pandemic has given organizations that provide coaching and navigation services a glimpse of what remote offerings might look like even when it’s safe to resume in-person sessions. Virtual coaching was something that LIFT had already been exploring in a small way, with about a dozen families, before the pandemic, and it’s probably something that will become a permanent feature of how LIFT does business. Here’s Lucy Smart again.
I'm so excited to be in person and be back in our office and be back at Appletree where we do some of our coaching to see people and have those in-person interactions, but I also think with the transition to virtual, we saw just like an increase in members being able to come to their meetings, right? Because they're all parents. They're all busy. They all have 1 to 5 kids clinging on them at all times. So, for them to just be able to click a link and dial into a meeting as opposed to drive or take the metro across D.C., it makes it easier for them and so I think that is a silver lining for us, that the pandemic has revealed that we can do it, you know, virtual coaching works and we still want to have in-person interactions and options, but we don't want to eliminate the virtual situation as well.
The briefs from Mathematica and the Gates Foundation contribute to a growing body of knowledge about what coaching and navigation services are, but high-quality scientific evidence of their effects on employment isn’t yet available. Other studies have found that coaching help with achieving health, educational, and financial goals. Research also shows that coaching in the corporate world, often referred to as executive coaching, is effective. In fact, executive coaching is what initially interested LIFT in pilot testing the approach for its members. Here’s Brian again.
Part of my inspiration for helping craft the pilot which then became coaching at LIFT, was executive coaching, understanding the limits of how it helps people clarify what matters most, and what they want to accomplish, and also in that same context of bandwidth challenges.
But I also was drawn to this idea of, somebody who can afford it, somebody who has a lot of resources, and is in a position of power, like a like an executive or folks that are accustomed to using executive coaching, well, if they can benefit from it, why shouldn't we think about what it means for people that otherwise can’t afford the high price tag of expensive executive coaches and otherwise? To me, that that became an equity issue, a matter of not just assuming that not only because of the price tag, but because maybe we thought someone who was of modest means, trying to make ends meet, didn't deserve something like a coach. I was very motivated to kind of level that that playing field.
Although the evidence suggests that coaching can help business executives, we don’t know yet how effective it is for people on the other end of the income spectrum. A study currently underway could provide some answers. For the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mathematica is currently conducting a randomized control trial of four coaching models, including LIFT’s. Findings aren’t expected until 2022, but Sheena says that regardless of what the study finds, some of the core characteristics of coaching clearly have merit.
I think there's something fundamental about coaching that should be applied to all social service programs. The respect for the client, respect for what they bring to the table, for their wants and needs, their experience, their resilience. And I think that's something that should be underlying all social service programs.
Of course, LIFT, like many nonprofits, tracks its own data to share with funders and can show that its members are increasing their income and savings while reducing their debt. They also have self-reported data on reduced stress levels. But when I asked Lucy Smart how she personally assesses the impact of coaching and navigation, she pointed to changes that are harder to capture in surveys and administrative data.
I'm lucky because I meet most of these parents at the very beginning of their journey with LIFT, and I'm there through the whole time. So, I kind of get to see that less, like, quantifiable change, whether that’s a change in confidence or a change in how they feel about their own situation and their own accomplishments. I think it's harder to get that information to send off to funders or putting in grants, right? But that is the real change that I see.
And we try to capture it. We do try to capture the members’ voice in sharing their stories, like Ty said, she often speaks at events and talking in this podcast, and talking about what LIFT has been like for her. But I think that's really something you can only get from directly hearing from the participants, is what has changed other than their financial situation, or other than what their resume looks like? You know, has coaching contributed to those more qualitative aspects of their life.
Thanks again to my guests, Ty Wright, Lucy Smart, Brian Marroquin, and Sheena McConnell. This episode and the research briefs we discussed were made possible with support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information on those briefs, visit Mathematica.org.
As always, thank you for listening to another episode of On the Evidence, the Mathematica podcast. Keep up with future episodes by subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts and by following us on Twitter. I’m at JBWogan. Mathematica is at MathematicaNow.
Read the issue brief on coaching and navigation services based on insights from a convening hosted by Mathematica and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.