WHA’s A Better Life passes muster in preliminary report

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An interim evaluation report by Boston University research partners indicates that the Worcester Housing Authority’s “A Better Life” self-sufficiency program has helped participants gain employment and educational opportunities, and dramatically impacted their earnings outlook.

This could be a critical factor as the housing authority continues to roll out its work/school requirements for residents of its state-subsidized units.

The mean average annual income of enrollees was $8,385 in 2012, the program’s initial implementation year. After two years, participants earned an average of $18,893, according to a 20-page report submitted by Emily F. Rothman and Jennifer Paruk of the BU School of Public Health’s Dept. of Community Health Sciences.

“The ‘A Better Life’ (ABL) program appears to have had several positive impacts. Most notably, on average, the income of ABL program participants increased over time — and those who experienced the largest gains in income were able to move out of public housing and ‘graduate’ to private housing from the ABL program as a result,” the report states.

As of March, seven ABL households had moved into privately owned housing.

Beginning Sept. 1, all eligible families of the approximately 500 households in the authority’s state-subsidized units  —  Curtis Apartments and Great Brook Valley Gardens  — will be required to pursue 1,200 hours of work and/or school annually (about 23 hours per week).

ABL participants, who must work and/or go to school an average of 30 hours weekly, receive what the WHA calls “intensive” case management, including a Family Development Plan, employment and life skills training, rental savings based on higher earnings, and other support opportunities and benefits.

Applicants for public housing who agree to sign up for ABL as a stipulation of their potential lease agreement are given admissions preference and bumped to the top of a waiting list that had about 15,000 people on it in 2013.

Residents who don’t meet the requirements could eventually face eviction. This is an option WHA administrators will employ only after extensive outreach.

“Taken as a whole, these results strongly suggest that the program may be having the desired impacts — regardless of whether participants enroll as volunteers or because of a mandate (admissions preference stipulation).” — From the July interim evaluation report

Among ABL families through March, the report found that about 80 percent were working or going to school at least part time. This is a 160 percent increase from January 2012.

“More than one-third of ABL participants who work full time are also attending school, either part time or full time,” the report states.

The rate of participants enrolled in educational classes or vocational training rose from 18 percent to 51 percent over that time. The report also found that participants in the initiative for two years were more than twice as likely to enroll in a weight-loss program, and after one year they were less likely to have experienced “past-year physical or sexual partner violence victimization.”

“We know that the program is working,” said Alex Corrales, WHA assistant executive director. “Those results speak for themselves.”

“Taken as a whole, these results strongly suggest that the program may be having the desired impacts — regardless of whether participants enroll as volunteers or because of a mandate (admissions preference stipulation),” the report states.

Despite gains, there were negatives to consider. The program has had difficulties in recruitment (precipitating the admissions preference option), and does not appear to have had a significant impact on participants’ debt or mental well-being. The report, as well, carries caveats of small sample size, lack of data randomization for control, and the fact that some of the data was self-reported by program participants.

Data are already being collected for a 2016 update to this report. Read the current report here.

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