Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies. Implementation/Local Office Practices

03/10/2003

In many states and localities, sanctions--particularly those affecting the full family--are relatively new to case managers and recipients. Work requirements and partial sanctions existed under the JOBS program in many states prior to reform, but few families were subject to them and they were rarely enforced. Enforcement is an important factor in the way sanctions create a work-oriented assistance system, and who is adversely affected (Pavetti and Bloom 2001). Lax enforcement can nullify their effect. Efforts to promote compliance, including providing clear information on sanctions, may encourage families to take appropriate steps to achieve self-sufficiency, and reduce the number who lose benefits due to sanctions.

State and local office procedures for implementing sanctions vary considerably, and may influence the role of sanctions in welfare reform. Thus, these procedures and the decisions that program administrators, intermediaries and case managers make provide an important context in understanding the role of sanctions. To date, there has been scant systematic review of how sanction policies are being implemented in local welfare offices. The research that has been done suggests that recipients often aren't clear about sanction policies, and that implementation of these policies varies considerably.

  • Recipients often are not clear about participation requirements, sanction policies, and processes to "cure" a TANF sanction.

Recipients are typically informed about program requirements and sanctions for noncompliance during orientation. In a report that synthesizes findings from existing studies (pre-TANF) about client participation, Hamilton and Scrivener (1999) reported that during any given month 37 percent of the welfare caseload had not completed an orientation, and as a result, may not be informed about sanctions. In addition, the quality of the orientation and the way it is conducted varies considerably within local welfare offices. Some recipients receive a clear message about what is expected of them and the consequences for noncompliance, while others may be less informed.

Even when informed, some TANF recipients do not fully understand what is expected of them. A study of second assignments to Iowa's Limited Benefit Plan found that one-quarter of parents who were sanctioned did not understand the program rules clearly (Nixon et al. 1999). An Inspector General's report of sanctions found that even though local offices explained sanctions to clients repeatedly and in a logical format, many TANF clients did not fully understand them (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1999). Clients often knew that they might lose their benefits if they didn't do what was expected of them, but rarely understood what benefits they would lose and for how long.

  • State and local practices vary considerably and can influence the number of families who are sanctioned.

The enforcement of sanctions may be influenced by case managers' ability to identify barriers to employment, time to monitor and track participation in program activities, approach to case management, and comfort initiating a sanction. Case managers have primary responsibility for encouraging and monitoring program participation and considerable discretion in initiating a sanction. Within local offices, some case managers initiate sanctions more frequently than others. Some states take steps to promote fairness in the implementation of sanctions. For example, welfare case managers in South Carolina receive training on sanctions and their implementation (Koralek 2000).

Variation in local practices may contribute to differences in sanction rates even when the policies are the same. In a study of Virginia's VIEW program, researchers looked at the implementation of TANF sanctions in five different communities (Pavetti et al. 1998). They found that differences in the philosophy and approaches to sanctions contributed to differences in the rates of sanctions between the study sites (sanction rates range from 11 and 35 percent). During the first 18 months of welfare reform implementation sanction rates varied across Maryland's counties from a low of 2.6 percent of all case closures to a high of 21.2 percent (Born et al. 1999). Koralek (2000) documented variation in the rates of sanctions and in the use of conciliation reviews in South Carolina. Sanction rates between the five communities studied range from 17 to 25 percent. The differences in the use of conciliation reviews were even greater, between 18 and 36 percent. During in-depth site visits Koralek (2000) found substantial differences in the approach and use of sanctions between these communities. Overall, local offices influence the amount of training, the "message" sent to clients about sanctions, and the process for initiating and implementing a sanction.

Implementation of strategies to encourage program compliance may also influence sanction rates in various communities. The Cuyahoga County Safety Net program in Ohio re-engages sanctioned families in work activities through phone calls and home visits by participating community agencies (Goldberg and Schott 2000). In the District of Columbia, contracted service providers conduct outreach home visits to determine the client's service needs and re-engage them in employment activities. In Minnesota, two intervention programs use legal advocacy aimed at reversing imposed sanctions. The Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis helps participants cure their sanctions by either proving their eligibility for exemptions or documenting their compliance. Some of these programs report considerable success in reversing inappropriate sanctions or helping recipients to cure them. For example, the Saint Cloud Area Legal Services in Stearns and Benton counties successfully resolved 88 percent of the cases referred to them between May 1998 and November 2000 (Collins and Obrecht-Como 2001).

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