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


Sanctions are intended to encourage TANF recipients to comply with program requirements. Some families may respond to the sanction by finding employment. Other families may fail to comply, and have their benefits reduced or eliminated. Some of these sanctioned families may have other sources of support, such as unreported earnings or income from family members, while others may lose their only source of income support. Depending on their circumstances prior to and actions after a sanction, a family may fare worse, the same, or better after being sanctioned. Studies attempting to assess the well-being of sanctioned families examined: (1) employment, (2) their return to the welfare systems, and (3) the presence of hardships. The research available in this area consistently found that sanctioned families are less likely than their non-sanctioned counterparts to be employed, and more likely to return to the welfare system. Fewer studies examined the presence of hardships, but those that did found that sanctioned families experience them at a higher rate.

  • Employment rates and earnings are lower for sanctioned than non-sanctioned families.

Studies that examined the employment status of sanctioned families found that between 36 and 55 percent are employed at some point after case closure (see Table 6). Employment status is measured from as little as four months to as long as two years after case closure. However, there does not appear to be any relationship to the level of employment and the period of time over which it is measured. While these rates indicate that a modest fraction of sanctioned recipients may find employment after their TANF case closes or may have been working prior to case closure, their employment rates are substantially lower than those for non-sanctioned recipients. Using administrative data, Born et al. (1999) and Edelhoch et al. (2000) found a 20 percent gap between the employment rates of these groups; Westra and Routely (2002) placed the gap at 10 percentage points. When Westra and Routely (2000) examined information provided by recipients through a telephone survey, the gap widened to 21 percentage points. Born et al. (1999) reported that sanctioned clients in Maryland who were working earned approximately $600 less per quarter than non-sanctioned clients, which may be a result of limited educational attainment and other human capital deficits. Studies that looked at the types of jobs sanctioned recipients hold found that they work in sectors similar to other welfare leavers--food service, clerical, and sales (Edelhoch et al. 2000). According to Fraker et al. (1997), sanctioned TANF recipients in Iowa who were employed after case closure worked an average of 31 hours per week and earned about $170 per week.(3) About one third (36 percent) of those employed reported that health insurance was available through their job; however, due primarily to the cost, only about 11 percent actually received it. Approximately 30 percent of the jobs offered paid sick leave.

  • Studies reported a wide range in the estimated number of sanctioned TANF recipients who return to the rolls; most studies found higher rates of return for sanctioned than non-sanctioned families.

If sanctioned recipients are unable to find employment on their own or lack other sources of support, they may return to the TANF rolls in order to meet their basic needs. Estimates on the fraction of sanctioned recipients who return to the TANF rolls range from 19 to 50 percent (see Table 6). The 19 percent estimate comes from a California study (Mancuso and Linder 2001). Because California only imposes a partial sanction, it is possible that families who leave assistance have other reliable sources of income. The 50 percent estimate comes from self-reports from participants in the Welfare, Children & Families Three City Study. About two-thirds said they had tried to get their benefits back and half said they had been able to get them back (Cherlin et al. 2001). Because these are self-reports, they might include people who reversed a sanction before losing benefits as well as those who left the rolls and then returned.


Table 6.
Employment Rates and Returns to TANF Assistance for Sanctioned and
Non-sanctioned Clients
Study Period measured Percentage of clients who are employed Percentage of clients who return to TANF
Sanctioned Non-sanctioned Sanctioned Non-sanctioned
Bloom and Winstead (2002) 6 months after case closure 55 n/a 45 n/a
Born et al. 1999 6 months after case closure 38 58 38 22
Cherlin et al. 2001 Varies by site 36 n/a 50 n/a
Edelhoch et al. (2000) 2 years after case closure 46 66 36 34
Fein and Lee (1999) 4 months after case closure 39 n/a 32 n/a
Fraker et al. (1997) Within 6 months of case closure 53 n/a 20(4) n/a
Mancuso and Lindler (2001) 1 year after case closure n/a n/a 19 n/a
Westra and Routely (2002) 1 year after case closure 42 52 40 33


  • Sanctioned recipients are more likely to experience material hardships than their non-sanctioned counterparts.

Material hardships TANF recipients face include borrowing money to pay bills or falling behind on payments, not having enough food, problems paying for medical care, and experiencing a utility shut-off, among others (Cherlin et al. 2001; Edelhoch et al. 2000; Fraker et al. 1997; Kalil et al. 2002; Mancuso and Lindler 2001). Cherlin et al. (2001) reported that sanctioned families were twice as likely as non-sanctioned families to say they lack adequate food, and five times as likely to borrow money to pay bills. A quarter of sanctioned TANF clients said they used a food pantry (compared to 19 percent of non-sanctioned clients), and about one-quarter said that they received emergency clothing (compared to 15 percent of non-sanctioned recipients). Based on telephone interviews with TANF recipients, Kalil et al. (2002) discovered that sanctioned clients were twice as likely to experience a utility shut-off (21 percent, compared to 9 percent for non-sanctioned clients). In addition, about one-third of sanctioned clients engaged in hardship activities within the last six months, compared to 14 percent of non-sanctioned clients.(5) About half of sanctioned clients indicated that they expect to experience hardship within the next year, while about a quarter of non-sanctioned clients had the same response. It is important to note that none of these studies establish a causal relationship between sanctions and hardship. In some cases, the family may not have been sanctioned at the time the study was conducted. While it is possible that sanctions may increase the likelihood that a family experiences various hardships, it is also possible that the same characteristics that lead families to be sanctioned may result in greater experience of hardship.

Sanctioned clients access a variety of resources and supports after TANF case closure to address their basic needs. A few studies found that sanctioned recipients often rely on emergency services such as food banks and homeless shelters after TANF case closure (Cherlin et al. 2001; Kalil et al. 2002). Other sources of support include friends and family, or government assistance programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income. Most sanctioned welfare recipients access Medicaid and food stamps. Estimates of the extent to which they rely on other sources of support vary widely. Edelhoch et al. (2000) reported that about one-quarter received income from someone outside the home. Fraker et al. (1997) found that 65 percent of sanctioned clients received support from their parents. Between 16 and 35 percent of sanctioned clients received regular child support (Edlehoch et al. 2000; Mancuso and Lindler 2001).

Two studies found that the circumstances of sanctioned TANF recipients improve over time. Edelhoch et al. (2000) found that almost half of sanctioned clients were working two years after case closure, compared to about one-fifth at case closure. Interviewing sanctioned clients at 6 and 12 months, Mancuso and Lindler (2001) documented that the resources and general family stability of sanctioned families increased over time.

  • One study suggests that sanctioned families are more likely to have an infant or toddler who is hospitalized.

In a study of 2,718 families who received welfare, Cook et al. (2002) examined the potential influence of welfare sanctions on the health and food security of young children. They found that infants and toddlers in sanctioned families have a 30 percent higher risk of having past hospitalizations and a 90 percent higher risk of being hospitalized at the time of an emergency room visit than children in non-sanctioned families. In the same study researchers found that sanctioned families have a 50 percent higher risk of being food insecure than non-sanctioned families.(6) Although the study authors suggest that sanctions may cause these adverse outcomes, it is also possible that the characteristics that make it difficult for a family to comply with welfare requirements may also lead to greater hospitalizations or emergency room visits. For example, a child with a chronic illness such as asthma may make it hard for a family to hold a job or comply with work requirements.

View full report


"full-report.pdf" (pdf, 596.55Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®

View full report


"appendices.pdf" (pdf, 788.94Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®