This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline "Building a ladder to success." More from this issue

Toby Herr, M.Ed. ’82, has never been afraid to start over. Time and again, she has looked at the data and asked, “What programs and supports can best help children and families move toward economic and social stability?”

Her work with struggling families began as a fourth-grade teacher in the Cabrini-Green public housing project on Chicago’s near north side. After teaching for eight years, she came to Erikson looking to further understand the effects of poverty on children and families.

She began working as an evaluator of a teen parent program shortly after graduation. As a researcher, Herr was frustrated by the program’s lack of updated data. “Checking in with the families every three to six months, all you get is a snapshot,” Herr says. “You end up with a distorted and incomplete picture of the families’ progress.”

With the data she did have, Herr concluded that while teen parents liked the support groups, the program was not designed to help them out of poverty.

“A longer-range, more powerful idea would be to focus on preparing them for a future in the workforce, not one on welfare,” says Herr.

This led Herr to establish Project Match in a Cabrini-Green broom closet in 1985. “We were in an old, run-down health center,” she says. “I took what I could get.”

An employment program for welfare recipients, Project Match would seek to understand poverty through a human development lens and through detailed data collection and analysis.

Data as catalyst

From Project Match’s base in Cabrini-Green, Herr sought to understand the families of the students she had taught, and find out what solutions might help stabilize their lives. Three quarters of those served by Project Match were women, and many had been on welfare their entire lives.

Herr initially thought that any employment was the answer. “We would drive them to prearranged interviews, and track their jobs and hours. If they left a job, we’d just keep going,” she says.

The initial findings were surprising and discouraging: It wasn’t getting a job that was a problem for the women. It was keeping it. “At that point, we could’ve said, ‘Wow, what a terrible program we’ve been running,’” Herr recalls. “But we weren’t defensive. We followed the data and started over.”

At a crossroads, Herr drew on the knowledge she gained at Erikson to help inform the next steps of the project.

“A human development lens helps you understand why high school dropouts would resist going back to school or work—settings where they had previously failed,” she says. “The continuous cycling in and out of jobs might be taking a toll on their fragile, still-forming identities as a potential workers.”

Herr and her colleague Warrine Pace kept collecting more data, and began to rework their model. They built in the concept of multi-year post-employment support, realizing that participants would need more help than just finding a first job. They would need ongoing support to find and keep a second, third, and even fourth one.

Since then, more than a decade of federal and state welfare-to-work research has shown overwhelmingly that post-employment support is an effective approach.

An evolving conversation on welfare

In 1996, everything changed. President Bill Clinton signed into law a new welfare reform bill, “changing welfare as we knew it,” Herr says. Now, time mattered. Recipients had five years to move from welfare to employment, and they had to meet strict work requirements to remain eligible for their monthly check.

With the new pressures on welfare recipients, Project Match asked what would happen if the welfare-to-work field were to broaden its recognition of what counted as a legitimate effort toward becoming self-sufficient.

This led Herr to create the “Incremental Ladder,” which became a symbol for the Project Match approach. The ladder’s top rungs were traditional activities of employment, education, and training, broken down into smaller time commitments. But the real innovation was the addition of lower rungs. With the lower rungs, people who were not ready for work or school would still have the opportunity to build achievements through their daily activities.

For instance, a mother having trouble regularly getting her children to school on time would be expected to master those skills before moving up the ladder. Not only would those skills benefit her children, but the same competencies also were critical for workforce success.

“The overarching principle of the ladder was that there must be an appropriate first step for everyone,” says Herr. “Not too high that the person would fall off the ladder, but high enough to represent mastery of a new step.” Subsequent steps would lead each person to create her own route toward economic independence and family stability.

Success and starting over

Project Match spent more than two decades following the data and determining the best ways to get people into permanent employment and stable lives. In 1988, just three years after it was founded, Project Match was recognized for its early findings on job retention by the Ford Foundation and Harvard University’s Innovations in State and Local Government award program. Twenty years later, Project Match was one of eight nonprofits internationally to receive the MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

Along the way, Project Match’s employment model for community-based organizations and case management systems for welfare agencies were being implemented at sites around the country. What Project Match had been doing all along had become standard workforce services.

Acknowledging that Project Match as a welfare-to-work program had run its course, the nonprofit was dissolved as its own entity in 2013 and folded into Erikson’s Herr Research Center for Children and Social Policy. The Research Center was established in 1997 with generous gifts from Herr’s husband Jeffrey.

“Now that we are at Erikson, we asked ourselves, should we shift our focus from adults in their role as workers to their roles as parents?” says Herr. “Or, more importantly, should we try to figure out what is going on with the children?”

She realized that, even with parental involvement, disadvantaged children’s futures were dependent on their own abilities to stabilize. One observation that stayed with her from her eight years of teaching in Cabrini-Green was that the children seldom had the opportunity to improve at anything.

“Helping children become good at something is very labor-intensive for parents, and typically takes money,” says Herr. “Children in low-income neighborhoods may have the opportunity to take a class in dancing or theater, but when it’s over, it’s over. There is seldom an opportunity to move up to the next level, which often requires leaving the neighborhood. We need ways for them to move up, but the question is, how?”

Her most recent work is creating a version of the incremental ladder for children, so they can see themselves improving at something both in and out of school.

Professor Fran Stott joined Erikson’s faculty at the same time Herr began her graduate studies. Stott saw the promise of Herr’s research early on, and later became a member of Project Match’s board.

“What made the project so wonderful is that it combined program development — which was grounded in an understanding of human complexity and social forces — with ongoing research, each contributing to and strengthening the other,” she says. “Toby’s research never flinched from reporting the data in a forthright, honest manner.”

Stott is excited by the next stage of Herr’s work. “It will be fun to see what she cooks up next.”