Studies that attempt to examine the impact of sanctions focus primarily on whether full-family sanctions have a greater impact than partial sanctions. The few studies that examined this difference concluded that full-family sanctions increase the likelihood that a recipient will leave welfare for work and result in greater caseload declines. The caseload decline result is predictable: if, in two states with identical TANF caseloads, one imposed partial and the other imposed full-family sanctions in equal numbers, the caseload in the latter would decrease by a greater amount simply because of the mechanics of the sanction. Judging whether one type of sanction is more effective than the other requires looking beyond caseload declines to measure self-sufficiency over time through employment, earnings, other sources of income and receipt of other public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. We would also want to look at broader measures of family and individual functioning to examine any impact the practice might have on child or family well-being. The one study that examined the impact of sanctions on employment exits did find that work exits were more common when families were subject to more stringent sanctions, however, this study was conducted at the start of welfare reform and the results may be different now that states have fully implemented their TANF programs. Additional research in this area could help to better assess how much full-family sanctions contribute to greater employment rates among welfare recipients and how these results compare to other policies such as work incentives.
Even with more and better data, studies that exploit the variation in state sanction policies will not be able to definitely prove whether full family sanctions produce better outcomes than partial sanctions. Because states that have implemented full family sanctions in conjunction with many other policy and programmatic changes, some of which are difficult to measure, there is always some worry that a state's sanction policy may be capturing many other elements of its welfare reform policies. A well-designed random assignment demonstration project could help to isolate the impact of full family sanctions. Under such a demonstration, some families would continue to be subject to a partial sanction, others to either a gradual or immediate full-family sanction. Recipients would be randomly assigned to one of the two groups. With the exception of a different sanction policy, the two groups would receive the same treatment. They would have access to the same services and would be subject to the same earned income disregard, time limit and other policies. Researchers would follow participants for an extended period and collect and analyze data on welfare receipt, employment and earnings, other sources of income, and receipt of other benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. In the absence of such a demonstration project, our understanding of the role of sanctions in welfare reform will always be incomplete.
"full-report.pdf" (pdf, 596.55Kb)