Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies. The Incidence and Duration of Sanctions

03/10/2003

Owing to methodological differences, the research on the incidence of sanctions can be extremely confusing to interpret. GAO (2000a), which used currently sanctioned cases to assess the incidence of sanctions, almost certainly presented an underestimate in all but the 14 states that impose partial sanctions. Studies examining closed TANF cases can--using closure codes--provide an accurate representation of the number of families whose cases have been closed due to sanctions, and who may be at greater risk for hardships associated with lower income. But they fail to capture the extent to which partial sanctions are used, either as a final or first stage of sanctioning, and thus also underestimate the extent to which sanctions are used, although to a lesser degree than the GAO 2000a and similar studies.

Studies that look at sanctioning over a period of time for a cohort of recipients or new applicants provide the most accurate estimate of the extent to which sanctions are imposed to encourage compliance. While not completely comparable, the two studies that used this methodology found similar rates of sanctioning for work-related requirements (45 and 52 percent) even though one was conducted in a state with a gradual full-family sanction and the other in a state with a partial sanction. If families were more likely to respond to harsher penalties, and everything else were the same, one would have expected to see a lower incidence of sanctions in the state with a gradual full-family sanction.

Considerably less information is available on the duration of sanctions. Studies that have looked at duration found that sanctions last for a short period of time for at least a modest fraction of recipients. For example, Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) found that 28 percent reversed their sanction within a month of the sanction. Two-thirds cured their sanction within three months. Only twenty percent of sanctioned clients remained in sanction status for six or more months. This study and others that look at the duration of sanctions do not examine who eventually comes into compliance and who does not. Also missing is an explicit discussion of the number or fraction of families who never respond to sanctions.

To further our knowledge of the incidence and duration of sanctions, it would be useful to conduct cohort studies in multiple states using the same methodology, including the same sampling frame, selection period, and follow-up period. Ideally, the sample would include cases from the full TANF caseload from a certain period who would be tracked over time. The sample would then include families who remained on TANF without getting sanctioned and those who left for reasons other than a sanction. These groups could then serve as comparison groups for the sanctioned groups. Gathering data from a large enough number of states implementing various sanction policies will enable better understanding of the role of sanctions generally play, and whether there are notable differences in the incidence of sanctions by the type of sanctioned imposed.

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