Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies. The Impact of TANF Sanctions

03/10/2003

Sanctions are intended to change TANF recipients' behavior; the hope is that they will encourage recipients who would not otherwise participate in work activities to do so, leading to higher levels of program participation, increased exits for work and lower TANF caseloads. In the absence of an experiment where families are randomly placed into groups, one that is subject to a sanction and one that is not (or one subject to a more stringent sanctioning policy and one to a more lenient policy), it is difficult to determine what impact sanctions have and whether stricter sanctions produce greater behavioral changes. While we can observe the number of families who have been sanctioned and describe their characteristics, we cannot capture the number and characteristics of families who may have changed their behavior to avoid being sanctioned. In the absence of this information, some studies exploit the variation in state sanction policies to examine whether stricter sanction policies lead to greater TANF caseload declines. The evidence suggests this is the case--stricter sanctions may increase TANF exits--but more research is needed.

  • A few studies suggest that more stringent sanctions lead to greater welfare exits and caseload declines, although most offer little insight into how these changes occur.

A study that examined the impact of waiver policies on welfare exits found that more stringent sanction policies are associated with increased employment exits (Hofferth, Stanhope, and Harris 2000). A second study that examined the relationship between a state's sanction policy and the change in its TANF caseload estimated that the presence of an initial full-family sanction is associated with a 25-percent higher caseload reduction rate than that found in states with weak sanctions (Rector and Youssef 1999). A study examining the relationship between welfare reform policies, governmental quality, and caseload changes found qualitatively similar results (Mead 2000).

In an earlier study, Mead (1997) concluded that well-performing welfare offices make program expectations clear and threaten sanctions for non-participation, but rarely need to impose sanctions on recipients. Conversely, welfare offices that do a poor job of clearly stating recipient expectations and perform poorly in job placement and other performance measures frequently sanction recipients. Accordingly, high rates of caseload declines may be due to different office performance--either high performance that encourages recipients to find work, or poor performance wherein expectations are unclear and noncompliance is likely, leading to exits without work.

Findings from the 11 programs in the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS) suggest that programs need to enforce work-related mandates in order to achieve high rates of participation in employment activities. Programs with high levels of enforcement of a participation mandate tended to have higher participation rates than programs with low levels of enforcement. However, within high enforcement programs, researchers found no association between the frequency of sanctions or the length of sanctions and program outcomes (Hamilton and Scrivener 1999). It is important to note that these findings are based on data gathered prior to the passage of PRWORA and included programs that implemented partial rather than full-family sanctions.

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