Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies. Characteristics of Sanctioned Families


In an effort to better understand the use and implications of sanctions, several studies examined the characteristics of sanctioned recipients, and most compared them to non-sanctioned recipients. Only a few studies collected data explicitly for this purpose; most relied on the administrative data available on all TANF recipients or for a subset, such as closed cases. These studies--particularly when they compare the characteristics of sanctioned and non-sanctioned recipients--provide some insight into the families affected and whether certain characteristics make TANF recipients more likely to be sanctioned. Of particular interest is whether sanctioned recipients exhibit characteristics that may make it more difficult to comply with program requirements. While there was some variation, most studies found that sanctioned families are more likely than non-sanctioned families to exhibit one or more characteristics that make them harder-to-employ. In these studies, families may not be sanctioned at the time the study was conducted.

  • Sanctioned families exhibit many of the characteristics that have traditionally been associated with longer welfare stays.

Studies of welfare dynamics conducted prior to reform found that recipients who were African American, young, never married and poorly educated were more likely to receive welfare for long periods of time (Pavetti 1995). Studies comparing sanctioned and non-sanctioned families found that the former exhibit many of these characteristics (see Table 4). With two exceptions, these studies found African-Americans over-represented among sanctioned families. For example, Kalil et al. (2002) found that more than two-thirds of sanctioned clients were African American, compared to about half of non-sanctioned clients. Several studies found that sanctioned families were more likely to be living in a large household, have never been married or not living with a partner, and be young. According to Westra and Routely (2000), 55 percent of sanctioned TANF clients have never married compared to half of non-sanctioned clients. Two studies, Born et al. (1999) and Koralek (2000) found that, on average, sanctioned clients were about two years younger than those not sanctioned. Hasenfeld et al. (2002) reported that TANF recipients under the age of 24 are somewhat more at risk for sanctions than older recipients. The one study that looked at the age at which a recipient had her first child found that 53 percent of sanctioned clients were 20 years old or younger when they had their first child, compared to 45 percent of non-sanctioned mothers (Born et al. 1999).


Table 4.
Characteristics More Prevalent Among Sanctioned than Non-sanctioned TANF Recipients
Studies Location of Study African American Never married or not living with a partner Larger household size/ more children Young adult Began childbearing at a young age
*Born et al. (1999) Maryland ns   x x x
Cherlin et al. (2001) Boston, Chicago and San Antonio     ns    
*Edelhoch et al. (2000) South Carolina x   x ns  
Fein and Lee (1999) Delaware x     x  
Hasenfeld (2002) California ns   x x  
Kalil et al. (2002) Michigan x x      
Koralek (2000) South Carolina x x   x  
*Mancuso and Linder (2001) California     x    
*Westra and Routely (2000) California x x      
* Indicates studies that compare sanctioned and non-sanctioned leavers.
ns - Variables were included but not significant.
  • Sanctioned TANF recipients are more likely than their non-sanctioned counterparts to be long-term welfare recipients and to experience human capital deficits such as limited education and lack of work history.

Studies of TANF recipients found that human capital barriers are strongly associated with unemployment (Kalil et al. 2002). Studies of sanctioned families consistently found that such barriers are even more common among these recipients (see Table 5). Between 30 and 45 percent of TANF recipients lack a high school diploma or GED (GAO 2000a). Among sanctioned recipients, this proportion is substantially higher--between 44 and 54 percent (Cherlin et al. 2001; Edelhoch et al. 2000; Fein and Lee 1999; Kalil et. al. 2002; Koralek 2000; Mancuso and Lindler 2001; Westra and Routely 2000). Other human capital deficits that affect sanctioned recipients more frequently include limited work experience and lack of job skills. For example, Hasenfeld et al. (2002) found that sanctioned recipients were twice as likely to have not worked in the past three years. Sanctioned recipients are also more likely to have received welfare for long periods of time. Edelhoch et al. (2000) found that sanctioned clients are twice as likely to have received cash assistance for 60 months or longer.


Table 5.
Barriers to Employment Experienced More Commonly by Sanctioned than
Non-sanctioned TANF Recipients
Study Human Capital Deficits Logistical Barriers Personal and Family Challenges
*Born et al. (1999) x n/a n/a
Cherlin et al. (2001) x x x
*Edelhoch et al. (2000) x n/a n/a
Fein and Lee (1999) x x n/a
Hasenfeld (2002) x x x
Kalil et al. (2002) x x x
Koralek (2000) x n/a n/a
*Mancuso and Linder (2001) x x x
*Westra and Routely (2000) x n/a n/a
* Indicates studies that compare sanctioned and non-sanctioned welfare leavers.
n/a - Variables not included in the analysis.
  • Studies consistently found that lack of transportation is more common among sanctioned than non-sanctioned TANF clients. Few studies examined lack of child care as a barrier to employment; of those that did, findings varied.

Logistical barriers, such as transportation and child are common among TANF recipients (Pavetti 2002). Transportation appears to be an even greater barrier for sanctioned recipients (see Table 5). For example, Cherlin et al. (2001) reported that 19 percent of sanctioned clients said someone in their household owned a car, compared to 35 percent of non-sanctioned clients. A study of welfare mothers in Michigan reported that 41 percent of non-sanctioned TANF recipients lacked access to transportation, compared to 59 percent of those sanctioned (Kalil et al. 2002). In California, it was estimated that 79 percent of CalWORKs clients in conciliation cited lack of transportation as a barrier to employment (California Department of Social Services 2001). The two studies that compared access to child care among sanctioned and non-sanctioned families reached different conclusions, possibly because they examined different groups of recipients. In examining sanctioned and non-sanctioned leavers, Mancuso and Linder (2001) found that sanctioned clients were more likely to indicate that child care is a barrier to employment. However, Hasenfeld et al. (2002), examining current recipients, found no difference.

  • Sanctioned families are more likely than non-sanctioned families to experience some but not all personal and family challenges.

Personal and family challenges, especially mental health and domestic violence, are common among TANF recipients, especially those who remain on the TANF caseload (Pavetti 2002). Few studies compared the presence of these issues in the lives of sanctioned and non-sanctioned recipients; those that did often found that the results varied depending on the issue examined. Studies consistently found that alcohol and drug problems are greater among sanctioned families (Cherlin et al. 2001; Hasenfeld et al. 2002; Mancuso and Lindler 2001). Mancuso and Lindler (2001) found that almost one-fifth of sanctioned clients may have a drug or alcohol addiction compared to less than 10 percent of non-sanctioned families. Studies that examined the presence of mental health problems found no difference among sanctioned and non-sanctioned recipients. Some studies looking at differences in domestic violence and physical health problems found differences between sanctioned and non-sanctioned clients, while others did not. For example, Kalil et al. (2002) found that 25 percent of sanctioned clients had experienced severe domestic abuse within the last year, almost twice the rate for non-sanctioned clients. Hasenfeld et al. (2002) found substantially lower rates of domestic abuse among sanctioned clients (14 percent) compared to Kalil et al. (2002) and no differences between sanctioned and non-sanctioned TANF recipients. In her study of the health of poor urban women, Polit et al. (2001) found that women with multiple barriers--including physical abuse, risk of depression, a chronically ill or disabled child--were more likely than other recipients to have been sanctioned in the prior year.

Involvement with the child welfare system is quite common among TANF families (Courtney et al. 2001; Needell et al. 1999; and Shook 1999). For example, Courtney et al. (2001) estimate that over half of TANF recipients in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin have been investigated by Child Protective Services. Needell et al. (1999) tracked child welfare involvement of families receiving cash assistance in ten counties in California. They found that 27 percent of children who received aid in 1990 experienced a child maltreatment report within 5 years. While some studies suggest that child welfare involvement may be more common among sanctioned families (Colville et al. 1997; Shook 1999), other studies do not find this relationship. In a pre-TANF study of case closures due to sanctions, Colville et al. (1997) found that sanctioned families were about 50 percent more likely to have contact with protective services, even prior to being subject to work requirements. However, using administrative data and case reviews with 400 TANF recipients in Utah, Derr and Cooley (2002) found that sanctioned and non-sanctioned families both had high rates of child welfare involvement, but that the former were no more likely to have an open child welfare case three years after TANF case closure.(2)

  • When accounting for the interaction and influence of various demographic characteristics and potential employment barriers simultaneously, few factors appear to significantly predict whether a family will be sanctioned or not.

Two studies used econometric models to identify the predictors of TANF sanctions. Hasenfeld et al. (2002), controlling for county and ethnicity, identified the following variables as significant risk factors for sanctions: limited work history, lack of transportation, large numbers of children, younger than 24, a non-native English speaker, and self-reported substance abuse. In a similar study of Michigan welfare recipients, Kalil et al. (2002) found fewer predictors of sanction status. Including a range of variables, they found only four that significantly predict sanction status: being African American, not cohabiting, being under the age of 24 or over the age of 35 and having less than a high school education. In both studies, a variety of characteristics and barriers to employment--including access to child care, physical or mental health problems, and domestic violence--were not found to be significant predictors of sanction status.

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