• 0.09,3.00
  • 0.04,1.00

Chicago ERA provided career counseling and related services to working, single parents with low incomes who received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with the goal of increasing their earnings.

Chicago ERA provided career counseling and related services to working, single parents with low incomes who received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with the goal of increasing their earnings.

Chicago ERA matched participants with a career and income advisor (CIA) who counseled them about how to advance in their current jobs and apply for higher-paying jobs. Participants could receive other education and training services and financial incentives for maintaining contact with their case manager to verify their work hours. A30-hour work requirement was part of their TANF participation, and failure to work at this level could result in a sanction of their TANF benefits. The program served participants for up to  two years, even if they left TANF. Services were provided to recipients of TANF who had worked 30 hours or more per week for at least 6 consecutive months, resided in Cook County, were at least age 18, were single parents, and could speak English or Spanish. Chicago ERA was implemented in Chicago, IL. The evaluation of Chicago ERA was part of a larger study of post-employment services demonstration sites within the ERA evaluation, which also studied ERA programs implemented in Riverside, CA; South Carolina; and Texas.

Year evaluation began: 2002
Populations and employment barriers: Cash assistance recipients, Employed, Parents, Single parents
Intervention services: Case management, Academic instruction, Employment retention services, Financial incentives, Sanctions, Training, Job search assistance, Job development/job placement
Setting(s): Urban only

Effectiveness rating and effect by outcome domain

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Outcome domain Term Effectiveness rating Effect in 2018 dollars and percentages Effect in standard deviations Sample size
Increase earnings Short-term Little evidence to assess support favorable $586 per year 0.028 1728
Long-term Little evidence to assess support favorable $920 per year 0.044 1728
Very long-term No evidence to assess support
Increase employment Short-term Supported favorable 2% (in percentage points) 0.041 1728
Long-term Little evidence to assess support favorable 0% (in percentage points) 0.010 1728
Very long-term No evidence to assess support
Decrease benefit receipt Short-term Little evidence to assess support favorable $-17 per year -0.006 1728
Long-term Mixed support favorable $-256 per year -0.093 1728
Very long-term No evidence to assess support
Increase education and training All measurement periods No evidence to assess support

Participant race and ethnicity
Black or African American
White, not Hispanic
Hispanic or Latino of any race
Unknown or not reported

Implementation details

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Dates covered by study

The Chicago ERA program started in February 2002 and ended in June 2004. The evaluation of Chicago ERA was from February 2002 to June 2003. Surveys were administered 12 months and 42 months after random assignment to a subset of participants in the intervention and comparison groups.

Organizations implementing intervention

The Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS), which manages the state’s TANF program, and the Illinois Department of Labor and Employment Security developed the Chicago ERA model. The for-profit employment services contractor Employment and Employer Services (E&ES) operated the intervention in 10 Chicago TANF offices.

Populations served

The Chicago ERA intervention was implemented in 10 Chicago welfare offices that had the largest number of TANF participants who had been working full-time for 6 consecutive months. The Chicago ERA program served TANF cash assistance recipients who had worked at least 30 hours per week for 6 consecutive months or more and had an upcoming benefit redetermination appointment. Participation was required for TANF recipients randomly assigned to the intervention.

The majority of ERA participants in Chicago were Black, not Hispanic (87 percent). Almost all (99 percent) were female. Participants had an average age of 33. Participants had, on average, 3.4 minor children. Only 4 percent were married and living with a spouse. Fifty-one percent of participants had a child older than age 6. Although all program participants reported being employed—it was a program eligibility requirement—only 56 percent had earnings reported in the unemployment insurance data in the 2 quarters before enrollment. This might indicate that many participants worked outside of the formal labor market receiving cash payments at or below minimum wage in jobs such as babysitting and house cleaning. About 44 percent had completed high school or a GED.

Description of services implemented

The intervention consisted of a set of services aimed at promoting employment stability and wage growth among TANF recipients. Chicago ERA services were customized to participants’ work condition and goals, and the service provider E&ES tailored its services based on what better wage jobs were available. The ERA sites had significant discretion over their services, and the Chicago ERA program concentrated its efforts on leveraging its connections with employers to facilitate participant advancement.
Chicago ERA staff delivered services in the main office of E&ES in downtown Chicago or off-site in the community. CIAs were assigned participants across the 10 DHS welfare offices throughout the city and sometimes traveled to various locations to meet with participants. Participants met with their CIA in downtown and DHS offices, city libraries, and, in rare occasions, their workplaces. Study participants could continue to receive services without formally exiting the program, including after TANF benefits expired.

The common components of the ERA programs in Chicago consisted of the following:

  • Intake. Participants completed a career and income advancement plan (CIAP) that they revised and updated over time and that helped participants create a career track with short-term and long-term goals.
  • Employment retention. Participants received job coaching, referrals to supportive services, help with budgeting and financial planning, and conflict resolution services to support employment retention. The Chicago ERA program helped participants purchase uniforms and equipment for their new employment.
  • Advancement services. The CIAs coached participants on how to acquire a promotion, request a raise, or gain more work hours. CIAs helped participants develop résumés and cover letters and prepare for interviews. CIAs also conducted job development by helping employed participants identify relevant job opportunities with higher wages.
  • Education and training. The Chicago ERA program helped identify and fund the tuition of short-term training programs for participants to help them advance to higher-paying jobs. ERA program participants could enroll in education and training programs and substitute up to 10 hours of employment with education and training within their 30-hour exempted period (more information on Illinois TANF policies in the “Local context” section).
  • Job search assistance. To help unemployed participants (that is, those who lost jobs after entering the program) become reemployed, participants attended job-readiness and life-skills workshops on résumé building, completing job applications, interviewing, choosing appropriate interview attire, building soft-skills, and managing time.
  • Sanctions. The Illinois DHS required Chicago ERA staff to impose gradual full-family sanctions that reduced participants’ benefits by half for unsatisfactory participation and cancel benefits altogether after three months of not participating in the program.
  • Financial incentives. Participants could receive financial incentives such as gift certificates ranging from $25 to $50 for enrolling and obtaining their GED or completing a career-specific vocational program, and another $125 incentive for retaining a new job for 90 days. Employed and unemployed participants who actively engaged with their CIA and completed tasks such as participating in job search activities, completing their CIAP, and maintaining all appointments with their CIA received a $75 monthly transit pass.
  • Other services. Chicago ERA providers referred participants to community organizations to receive free tax-preparation services and help with opening a personal bank account. Chicago ERA provided funds to participants who opened a bank account to meet the minimum balance requirement. In addition, the provider offered a computer lab where participants could learn how to use Microsoft Office, research careers, and study for the GED exam.

E&ES’s strong relationships with local employers helped facilitate a work-based advancement approach for the Chicago ERA intervention. The program had access to employers’ interview questions, received direct feedback from employers about participants’ interviews, and cooperated with employers to address logistical issues and scheduling. E&ES administered drug tests to ensure participants were qualified before proceeding with interviews, which helped strengthen the reputation and trust between employers and the service providers. In addition, E&ES subsidized participants’ uniforms, equipment, and training to relieve the cost burden from the employers.

Program implementation changed in several unexpected ways during the study. Chicago ERA staff dedicated more time than anticipated on employment retention rather than advancement as they had a number of participants who had challenges maintaining employment due to adversities such as evictions, family emergencies that dealt with health and mental health issues, and unreliable childcare. Chicago ERA staff tried to address these barriers by providing financial assistance and case management and referring participants to community organizations and social services agencies.

The program used various engagement strategies to retain program participants. In addition to the incentives, Chicago ERA staff held frequent dinners and award ceremonies for new enrollees. Participants could continue receiving services from Chicago ERA after TANF benefits ceased. Chicago ERA staff also applied punitive methods such as sanctions to maintain client participation in the mandatory program. Staff faced challenges enforcing sanctions for participants who were meeting the standard work requirement of 30 hours per week because of lack of agreement among staff about what activities to require beyond attending the in-person meetings. Furthermore, the small TANF benefit amount was not enticing enough to keep full-time working participants engaged in Chicago ERA, and many participants voluntarily withdrew from TANF and relinquished their benefits to avoid participating in the program. E&ES decided to change their recruitment strategy by marketing Chicago ERA as a voluntary program with elaborate fliers and pamphlets to increase the sample size.

Challenges. Chicago ERA faced several challenges helping participants obtain a promotion and higher wages. Many jobs offered a raise if the participant worked evening or night shifts; however, this schedule was an obstacle for many single mothers who relied on childcare. Moreover, the types of employment that participants held offered few opportunities for promotion. Chicago ERA staff tried to respond to these challenges by helping participants grow their clientele for their work (for example, finding more children to babysit and more homes to clean) or initiating a conversation about obtaining a new job. The Chicago ERA program also experienced setbacks with recruiting participants. Many participants did not want to change their current employment—a step often encouraged by staff—for various reasons, such as apprehension about changing to a new work environment or industry or not wanting to leave a job that was conveniently near their home or that permitted a flexible schedule. In 2004, the Chicago ERA program experienced budget cuts that disrupted and reduced services, and the program stopped offering most of the financial incentives. In the end, participants received fewer than two years of full program services.

Service intensity

In a 12-month follow-up survey administered to Chicago ERA participants, the ERA participants reported they’d had, on average, about 10 contacts with staff since randomization. Twenty-six percent of the ERA group members interacted with a staff member in the four weeks before the survey. According to data the study collected over a 2-week span, CIAs spent almost 40 percent of their time interacting with participants. Each Chicago ERA caseworker had, on average, 7 touchpoints per day across the participants on their caseloads for about 23 minutes per contact. Staff and participant contacts were mainly by phone or written communication (59 percent), and the rest were in person. Nearly half of the touchpoints were initiated by program staff.

Comparison conditions

TANF recipients assigned to the comparison group were not eligible for Chicago ERA services but could receive standard employment-related services from DHS staff or a contracted employment vendor.


The study did not discuss any partners involved with implementing the Chicago ERA intervention.


Chicago ERA employed seven or eight full-time CIAs who delivered all program services to participants, including case management, job development, and completion of the CIAP with participants. E&ES and Cygnet Associates, a firm hired by the evaluator (MDRC) to provide technical assistance and training, trained the CIAs. The monthly staff meetings to discuss participants and program challenges also supported Chicago ERA staff.

Chicago ERA staff received financial incentives in the form of bonuses for their performance and meeting or exceeding quarterly goals in helping participants raise their hourly wages or work hours, enroll in education and training, open a bank account, or receive the earned-income tax credit.

Local context

The intervention took place in 10 DHS offices in Cook County, including Austin, Calumet Park, Englewood, Garfield, Michigan, Northwest, Oakland, Pershing, Roseland, and Southeast. The offices were in under-resourced neighborhoods. Chicago has a high degree of residential segregation and, among Black residents, a high degree of spatial mismatch—that is, the distance between where people live and where jobs are located.

The Chicago ERA intervention derived from two Illinois TANF policies. The first policy mandated TANF offices to disregard two-thirds of TANF recipients’ income when considering their monthly TANF benefit amount. The second policy exempted the months where recipients worked at least 30 hours per week toward the 60-month lifetime TANF benefits limit.

During the study, the annual unemployment rate in Chicago was about 6.8 percent, which was marginally above the national rate. Moreover, the country was recovering from the 2001 recession.

Fidelity measures

The study did not discuss any tools to measure fidelity to the intervention model.

Funding source

The program was funded by the U.S Administration for Children and Families, the Illinois DHS, and the Illinois Department of Labor and Employment Security, which administered funding received from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Welfare-to-Work block grant. The funding from the Welfare-to-Work block grant ended in 2004. The U.S. Department of Labor provided funding via a one-time special grant in the final year of the program.

Cost information

The cost of the Chicago ERA program per group member in the study was $3,747 (in 2008 dollars), which included the Chicago ERA services received, as well as education and training and supportive services costs. A cost-benefit analysis examined costs and benefits to the participant, the government, and society:

  • The participant. The Chicago ERA intervention resulted in a gain of $3,520 to the participant; this means that the sum of net benefits from increased earnings, fringe benefits, tax credits, food stamps, Medicaid, and supportive services payments and incentives received was estimated to be $3,520 higher than the net reduction in the participant’s welfare and increase in their tax payments.
  • The government. The Chicago ERA intervention resulted in a loss of $2,527 to the government; this means that the sum of net increases paid by the government in tax credits, food stamps, Medicaid, supportive services payments and incentives, public assistance administration and employment and training costs was estimated to be $2,527 higher than the sum of the net gains in tax payments and reductions in welfare payments.
  • Society. The Chicago ERA intervention resulted in a gain of $822 to society as a whole; this means that the sum of the net increase in earnings and fringe benefits received by participants was estimated to be $822 higher than the sum of the net increase in costs to the government for public assistance administration and provision of employment and training.

Studies of this intervention

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Study quality rating Study counts per rating
High High 1