Ronette, a single mother in her early 20s, is already feeling stressed when she arrives to meet with her case manager at the welfare office.1 Her child care fell through, and she had to plead with her sister to look after her daughter. After a short greeting, Ronette’s case manager tells her she needs to find a job, or she may lose her benefits. She needs to develop a resume and start sending it out to employers by next week. Ronette is worried—she depends on those benefits to pay for food and rent. She leaves the office overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. Ronette doesn’t know what a resume looks like or how to go about developing one. The next time she meets with her case manager, she hasn’t developed a resume or found a job.
The many steps required to find and keep a job—from writing a resume to arranging reliable child care—can be daunting for anyone, but research suggests that people experiencing poverty deal with added stress and distractions that make the process even more difficult. The fundamental problem of not having enough money can turn everyday problems, such as an unexpected bill or child care issues, into crises that don’t leave much room for focusing on anything else.
Some state and local human services and employment agencies believe they have found a way to help clients overcome the obstacles that might otherwise lead to prolonged reliance on public benefits. It’s called coaching. Instead of telling someone like Ronette what she’s required to do to keep her benefits, the coach starts by asking what the client hopes for in her life. The coach acts as an ally and mentor who motivates, supports, and provides feedback as the client pursues her own life and career goals.
Instead of the traditional case management session described above, imagine what Ronette’s experience would be like with a coach. In talking with Ronette, the coach discovers that Ronette would love to move out of her studio apartment and have a small house with a yard where her daughter could play. Identifying the house as a long-term goal, the coach guides Ronette through a list of questions to develop an action plan. The conversation might go something like this:
Coach: “What do you need to buy a house with a yard?”
Ronette: “Money and a job.”
Coach: “Okay, and what do you think you need to do to get a job?”
Ronette: “Apply for one.”
Coach: “What will you need to apply for one?”
Ronette: “A resume.”
Coach: “What will you need to develop a resume?”
At this point, Ronette reveals that she doesn’t know how to develop a resume. The coach is able to suggest an upcoming workshop on developing resumes. Ronette leaves her meeting with the coach full of hope that one day she can buy a house with a yard because she can clearly see the steps she has to take to reach that goal. Next week, Ronette returns with a resume, the coach congratulates her, and together they make a plan for sending it to employers.
These two scenarios—with different outcomes—differ in how the program staff member interacts with Ronette. The traditional case manager sets the goal for Ronette and tells her what to do. The coach doesn’t tell Ronette what to do, but together, they develop a plan based on a goal that is personally meaningful to Ronette. The coach helps Ronette break down her long-term goal into manageable “chunks,” such as attending a resume development workshop, thinking about what the resume will include, and developing one. In the end, Ronette not only develops a resume and applies for jobs, but she also learns how to set goals and make realistic plans to achieve them.
This coaching model draws inspiration from research on setting goals and creating action plans in other contexts. Studies have shown how the conscious process of goal setting and pursuit has been found to be effective in achieving goals in many different contexts. Other studies have shown the effectiveness of breaking down a task into manageable chunks. To date, there is little rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of using coaching to help people with low incomes find and keep jobs. So while it seems promising, we don’t yet know whether this approach works.
To learn more about the effectiveness of employment coaching for TANF recipients and other low-income people, the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation within the Administration for Children and Families is funding an evaluation of coaching programs. Programs in this evaluation include (1) the Family Development and Self-Sufficiency program in Iowa; (2) Goal4 It! in Jefferson County, Colorado; (3) LIFT in Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago; and (4) MyGoals for Employment Success in Houston and in Baltimore. The evaluation, conducted by Mathematica and its partners Abt Associates and MDRC, will examine whether coaching is effective at helping people find and keep jobs and become economically independent.
The evaluation involves a randomized controlled trial. At each program in the evaluation, applicants eligible for coaching will be randomly assigned to either a “treatment” group that will be offered coaching or a “control” group that will not. The researchers will then follow the two groups for about two years and compare how they fare. If coaching is effective, the treatment group should be more successful at getting and keeping a job than the control group. Treatment group members may also become better at setting and pursuing goals and, as a result, see other improvements in their lives. The findings from this study should shed new light on what types of services are most helpful to people like Ronette who are seeking to overcome the stresses of poverty and move closer toward achieving their goals.
1 Ronette is a fictional character based on years of observations conducted during research studies of welfare and employment programs.