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


Information on the incidence and duration of sanctions can improve our understanding of the role they play in welfare reform in two different ways. It can provide some insight into the extent to which sanctions are used to encourage compliance with work and other program mandates. It can also provide information on the number of families who may be at higher risk of various hardships because their financial resources have been reduced.

State data suggest that, at least in some states, large numbers of families have been sanctioned for failure to comply with program requirements. For example, in Virginia, in State Fiscal Years (SFY) 1996 and 1997, 3,777 families were sanctioned for failure to sign an Agreement of Personal Responsibility or participate in the state's work program (Gordon and Agodini 1999). In Indiana, in SFY 1995, 7,810 sanctions were imposed on families, up from 917 the previous year (Holcomb and Ratcliffe 2000). During a six month window in 1994 and 1995, 4,200 families were assigned to Iowa's Limited Benefit Plan (the equivalent of a full-family sanction with a six-month minimum period), although slightly more than half of these assignments were canceled before the family lost cash assistance because they came into compliance with the state's work requirement (Fraker et al. 1997).

  • Owing to differences in methodology, studies reported a wide range of estimates of the incidence of sanctions.

Rates of sanctioning, rather than raw numbers, are needed to compare the incidence of sanctions across states and across time. Studies that examined the incidence of sanctions reported rates ranging from 5 to 60 percent (see Table 3). The differences in these estimates appear to primarily reflect variations in the methodology used to calculate sanction rates. The studies we reviewed used three different groups as the base for estimating the prevalence of sanctions: (1) current TANF recipients, (2) a cohort of current or new recipients followed over time, and (3) closed TANF cases. Studies that used the current caseload as the base reported the lowest sanction rates; cohort studies reported the highest.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO 2000a) and Koralek (2000) calculated the incidence of sanctions as the fraction of the current caseload in sanction status. Using this methodology, GAO concluded that the "proportion of TANF families who actually lose part or all of their TANF cash benefits as a result of sanctions is not large." During an average month in 1998, about 135,800 families, or five percent of the TANF caseload, received reduced or no TANF benefits as a result of sanctions for failure to comply with TANF and other work responsibilities. GAO's state estimates ranged from a low of 1 percent in Rhode Island to a high of 29 percent in North Carolina. In states that impose only a partial sanction, this methodology provides a meaningful measure of the prevalence of sanctions. However, for states that impose immediate or gradual full-family sanctions, it does not. In a follow-up letter to the study requesters, GAO (2000b) acknowledged that the estimates of full-family sanctions provided to them by the states counted the sanction during the first month that the sanction was imposed; however, these cases were not included on an ongoing basis. Therefore, the figures presented by GAO do not reflect the cumulative effect of sanctions. Most likely, this resulted in a substantial underestimation of the number of families affected and the extent to which sanctions are used to encourage compliance with work mandates. Similarly, GAO's conclusion that most sanctions are partial rather than full-family may not hold true upon examination of data on all sanctions over time.

The sanction rates reported in studies of closed cases range from 10 to 28 percent (see Table 3). These studies used the administrative code for case closure to calculate the fraction of cases that have closed due to sanctions, providing a meaningful measure of the number of families who may be at higher risk for various hardships because their cash grants have been eliminated. However, they provide an incomplete picture of the extent to which sanctions are being used to encourage compliance. Missing from these data are families who are currently subject to a partial sanction and those who were previously subject to a partial or full-family sanction but have since reversed it. Ovwigho et al. (2002) suggest that, at least in Maryland, the use of full-family sanctions has increased over time. Among early cohorts of leavers in Maryland (October 1996 to March 2001), only 10 percent of cases were closed because of a full-family sanction. Among later cohorts (April 2001 to March 2002), this rate almost doubled, increasing to 18 percent. South Carolina's 29 percent sanction rate may be higher than that of other states because the estimate is calculated only for families subject to the work requirement.

The highest estimates of the incidence of sanctioning are reported in studies that follow a cohort of recipients or new applicants over time. Fein and Lee (1999) found a sanction rate of 60 percent for all sanctions, and 52 percent for work-related sanctions for a random sample of TANF cases followed over an 18-month period. Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) reported a sanction rate of 45 percent for work-related sanctions for a random sample of new cases followed over a 12-month period. While they are not without problems, these estimates provide the most reliable picture of the extent to which sanctions are imposed, and the most complete accounting of the number of families who have experienced sanctions. Still, these estimates may not account for all recipients who are ever affected by a sanction. Sanction notices, intended to warn clients of a pending sanction, motivate some to participate who may not have otherwise. Recipients who respond to these notices would be affected by a sanction, but would not be counted as a sanctioned TANF recipient.


Table 3.
Reported Rates of Sanctioning
Study State Sanction Type Base Period of Time Sanction Rate (%)
GAO (2000a) Nationwide   TANF caseload Average month in 1998 5
Koralek (2000) South Carolina Immediate Full Family TANF caseload Average month during 1998-1999 16
Born et al. (1999) Maryland Immediate Full Family Closed cases Cases closed in Oct 1996-Mar 1998 7.3
Ovwigho et al. (2002)(1) Maryland Immediate Full Family Closed cases Cases closed in Apr 2001-Mar 2002 18.3
Edelhoch et al. (2000) South Carolina Immediate Full Family Closed cases Cases closed in Oct 1996-Mar 1997 28
Westra and Routley (2000) Arizona Gradual Full Family Closed cases Cases closed in Jan 1998-Mar 1998 20
Fein and Lee (1999) Delaware Gradual Full Family Cohort Longitudinal Dec 1996-June 1998 60
Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) Indiana Partial Cohort of new cases Longitudinal May 1996-Apr 1997 45


Unfortunately, we no of no studies that have been conducted to examine the proportion of TANF families who receive a sanction notice and comply before the sanction is imposed.

  • Sanctions tend to be imposed shortly after TANF clients begin receiving benefits.

TANF clients appear to be most likely to be sanctioned shortly after they begin receiving assistance, a pattern that is consistent with a work-first philosophy. Tracking the patterns of sanctions, researchers found that most occur within the first three months of program entry (Fein and Lee 1999; Koralek 2000; Holcomb and Ratcliffe 2000). Studying patterns of TANF sanctions in Indiana, Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) reported that 56 percent began within the first three months, and 81 percent by six months. Fein and Lee (1999) found that 43 percent of sanctions occurred within the first month of enrollment.

  • Many TANF recipients cure their sanction and remain in sanction status for relatively short periods of time.

Reporting findings from data collected in seven states, the GAO (1997) concluded that of those sanctioned, 18 to 47 percent return to welfare. Another GAO study (2000a) estimated that in ten states, an average of about one-third of sanctioned clients came into compliance after receiving a full or partial sanction. This finding is consistent with other studies examining the percentage of clients who return to TANF after a sanction (Fein and Lee 1999; Fraker et al. 1997; Holcomb and Ratcliffe 2000). In Iowa, Fraker et al. (1997) found that 53 percent of sanctioned clients reversed their sanction. In Indiana, Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) documented that 55 percent come into compliance within a year after the sanction is imposed. Of those who reverse their sanction, 28 percent do so in the first month and about two-thirds reverse their sanction within three months after the sanction is imposed. Two-thirds of TANF recipients interviewed in the "Three City Study" conducted in Baltimore, Boston and San Antonio reported trying to get their benefits back, and about half of all sanctioned clients were successful in doing so (Cherlin et al. 2001).

  • Most sanctioned clients are sanctioned only once, but a modest fraction are sanctioned, come into compliance and then are sanctioned again.

Most clients reverse their sanction and return to cash assistance, get a job, or remain off of assistance and seek alternative sources of support. However, a modest fraction of sanctioned clients cure their initial sanction, and then are sanctioned again after failing to comply with program activities a second or third time. Tracking the dynamics of welfare sanctions, Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) estimated that about one-fifth of sanctioned clients received more than one sanction in a year-long period. Nixon et al. (1999) found that in Iowa about one-quarter of sanctioned clients were sanctioned more than once. These were a more hard-to-employ group of TANF recipients than those who experienced only one sanction. According to clients who repeat sanctions, personal and family challenges, poor client-case manager communication, lack of transportation, and lack of child care contribute to their repeated problems with noncompliance.

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