UB School of Social Work receives $345,000 grant to evaluate new program designed to overcome workforce barriers

Concept of support to help solve the problem of the "benefits cliff.".

Release Date: July 19, 2022

Portrait of UB social work researcher Wooksoo Kim, PhD.


Portrait of UB social work researcher Christopher St. Vil, PhD.

St. Vil

“As our participants experience life changes, we’re then able to respond to that, while still maintaining the program’s goals. ”
Wooksoo Kim, PhD, associate professor of social work
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Two University at Buffalo social work researchers have received a nearly $345,000 Erie County Department of Social Services (ECDSS) grant 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 working individuals in the county transition from receiving social service benefits to self-sufficiency.

Entry-level employees receiving social service benefits face what’s called a “benefits cliff” when they’re offered promotions or have opportunities to move to higher paying jobs. The cliff is a workforce barrier separating potential advancement from the reality of a pay raise that disqualifies them from benefits they were previously eligible to receive.

The project seeks to minimize the risks associated with absorbing those reductions by offering supplemental food, housing, childcare, and health care support for people who “leap” from the cliff toward self-sufficiency. The program combines job training, career and life coaching and educational opportunities with the supplemental benefits. The goal is to enable greater economic independence, increased financial stability and improved health outcomes.

UB’s School of Social Work will partner with ECDSS to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the project. The goal is to determine if the supplemental support reduces “benefits cliff” fears and leads to self-sufficiency.

This evaluation includes developing a real-time feedback loop that measures effectiveness as the program is being implemented, according to Wooksoo Kim, PhD, an associate professor in the UB School of Social Work, who as the grant’s principal investigator will work with her UB colleague Chris St. Vil, PhD, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work.

“Many program evaluations focus exclusively on program outcomes, but we conduct program evaluations in real-time, so we’re able to tweak the program as we go,” says Kim. “As our participants experience life changes, we’re then able to respond to that, while still maintaining the program’s goals.”

It’s what St. Vil calls “internalized quality assurance.”

“We’re talking to participants regularly and collecting data every three months to discover the everyday idiosyncrasies that can promote self-sufficiency,” he says. “It’s easy to think anecdotally about the workforce barriers that keep people from facing the realities of the ‘cliff,’ but with real-time feedback we’re able to continually improve the program over its two-year course.”

In addition to its novel evaluation instrument, the program also distinguishes itself from similar projects by working with individuals who are currently working. Workforce development projects usually set goals of getting unemployed participants into the work culture, but the Erie County project has roughly 200 working participants who have been recommended for the program by their employers or the ECDDS. 

None of the participants receives cash benefits, but all of them receive at least one benefit reflected in the four areas of supplemental support.

“Even a slight salary increase can translate to benefit loss far greater than what’s realized in a weekly paycheck,” Kim says. “That’s why we also have to address the psychological aspects of the ‘cliff,’ because surrendering that benefit is scary.”

St. Vil says that’s where the life coaches can help.

“The life coaches have experienced exactly what the participants are facing,” he says. “They can share stories and help with the adjustment.”

Both Kim and St. Vil say the county program and their accompanying evaluation are forward-thinking instruments for addressing poverty.

“Social work as a profession has many layers, but one goal among many concerns itself with helping people work toward self-sufficiency,” says Kim. “We have an exciting opportunity to collaborate with the county as researchers to help people in Western New York with just that.”

“It’s a unique model,” says St. Vil. “I’m thrilled to be part of that.”

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