Identifies gaps among rigorous studies of interventions to improve employment outcomes of low-income adults from 1990 to mid-2014 and provides suggestions for future research to improve evidence related to specific populations, geographic settings, and primary service strategies.

The Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE) in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) sponsored the Employment Strategies for Low-Income Adults Evidence Review (ESER)--a systematic review of the literature published from 1990 to mid-2014 on the effect of employment and training programs and strategies for low-income individuals. This brief is one in a “series of briefs [that] offers a synthesis of the findings of ESER for policymakers, practitioners, and officials who seek to improve the employment and earnings outcomes of low-income adults through research-based interventions. This brief focuses on gaps in the research base…from 1990 to mid-2014” (p.1).

“Trained reviewers examined the strength of the causal evidence for each study…then rated each study based on its rigor (not on the effectiveness of the intervention).…The ESER team identified a ‘primary strategy’ for each intervention[:]…the service most treatment group members received and most comparison group members did not.…The team determined the primary strategy for each intervention by having two reviewers independently read the description of each intervention, identify a primary strategy, compare their assessments, and discuss until they reached agreement” (p.2). The team only reviewed studies that used “randomized controlled trials or comparison group designs” (p.1).

Research questions included: “For which target populations, settings, and service strategies is there little or no research or limited high-quality evidence about what works to improve employment outcomes for low-income adults? What challenges do policymakers and practitioners face in learning from this literature” (p.1)?

“This brief discusses limitations both of the interventions studied and the studies themselves and makes recommendations for a research agenda to address these gaps and strengthen the evidence base” (p.1).

(Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)

Major Findings & Recommendations

The brief divides the discussion of gaps into three sections: Target populations (p.1). • “Little evidence exists on employment and training interventions for certain hard-to-serve populations…such as those who are homeless, disabled, substance-dependent, or reentering from prison” (p.1). • “ESER identified little research on employment and training interventions for these populations, even though ESER’s search strategy included search terms…designed to identify such studies. For each of these hard-to-serve populations, ESER identified three or fewer interventions with any evaluation” (p.2). • “Among the identified studies on hard-to-serve populations, the quality of the research was generally high…” (p.2). • “Less evidence exists on employment and training interventions for low-income males than females” (p.2). Settings of the intervention (p.2). • “Little evidence exists on interventions in exclusively rural or suburban settings” (p.2). • “Rigorous research on employment and training for low-income adults peaked during the 1990s” (p.3). Primary service strategy (p.3). • “Little evidence exists on the effectiveness of some commonly implemented employment strategies” (p.3). The authors summarize challenges to interpreting the results from ESER (p.4): • “Multiple strategies were almost always evaluated as a bundle….This makes it challenging to determine which individual strategies were effective, even when a single strategy appeared to be the primary one” (p.4). • “Few studies controlled for earnings history from before the year leading up to the intervention” (p.4). • “Comparison groups varied greatly in the services they received” (p.4). The brief concludes with suggestions for future research (p.4): • “Researchers can use ESER to identify research populations and settings that would particularly benefit from closer investigation and more evidence” (p.4). • “The field of employment and training for low-income adults could benefit from more thorough documentation of the characteristics and implementation guidelines of specific, replicable models” (p.4). • “Rapid-cycle evaluations (RCEs) are a potentially useful supplement to large, multiyear evaluations” (p.5). • “Researchers can explore the impacts of individual employment and training strategies in addition to complex, bundled evaluations” (p.5). (Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)