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Research Report

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With dramatic shifts in the economy in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for families to move into or stay in the middle class without access to higher education and skills training. Government-sponsored work supports help by providing direct assistance to working families to meet basic needs, such as child care, food, and housing. Yet, many supports do not reach low-wage working families in Massachusetts because of low eligibility thresholds, inadequate funding, limited availability, limited awareness, and numerous barriers to accessing such supports. Even for low-wage workers who do receive key work supports, such as subsidized child care and housing, reductions and elimination of these supports at low wages can impede vulnerable families’ progress toward the middle class.

This report highlights the difficult choices Massachusetts low-wage workers must make between moving up the wage ladder and losing critical work supports before they are economically stable. It identifies specific points along the income ladder at which workers are faced with difficult trade-offs between higher earnings and career advancement on the one hand and the resulting loss of important supports on the other. Those receiving work supports find that their net monthly resources—their after-tax income from earnings plus the value of work supports, minus the cost of all basic needs—do not rise in step with wage increases for full-time workers earning between $11 and $29 per hour. Instead, these workers discover that at higher wage levels they can be left with fewer resources at the end of the month than they had at lower wages.

This report also highlights opportunities for state programs to adjust eligibility criteria and for service providers to offer new kinds of guidance in order to more effectively support those who are trying to work their way into the middle class. Most importantly, this report calls for greater investments in work supports for low-wage earners seeking to combine work with education or skills development. Such education and training can provide crucial leverage to help families leap over some of the pitfalls on the path toward middle-class membership. In fact, wages are closely linked to educational attainment, with post-secondary education contributing to significantly higher earnings than those attained by high school graduates and non-completers. In 2005, having an associate’s degree added $8,154 to a Massachusetts high school graduate’s annual median income, while earning a bachelor’s degree added $18,346. In view of the critical role of education and training in facilitating workers’ access to family-supportive wages, we recommend transforming the current work support system to sustain work, school, and family.


This report was produced by Crittenton Women’s Union and the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston supported by The Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation.

FitsStarts_Q+A_FINAL.doc (90 kB)
“Fits & Starts: The Difficult Path for Working Single Parents” Q + A

FitsStarts_Fact_Sheet_FINAL.doc (77 kB)
“Fits & Starts: The Difficult Path for Working Single Parents” Fact Sheet



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