Review of Sanction Policies and Research Studies. Key Implementation Tasks

03/10/2003

Putting sanction policies into practice is a complex endeavor. In order to impose sanctions in a meaningful way, states must create the foundation for a mandatory employment program. This includes determining who is required to participate in work activities and to which activities recipients will be assigned, ensuring that sufficient slots are available, developing systems for monitoring compliance and initiating the sanction process, and implementing strategies for encouraging compliance.

Within this framework, the implementation of TANF sanctions involves six key tasks. The first is clearly informing recipients about what is expected of them and the consequences for not following through. This typically begins during an initial orientation and may be repeated throughout the service delivery process. The second is identifying clients who may be unable to participate in program activities because they lack child care or transportation or face other personal and family challenges that may make participation difficult. TANF agencies use a variety of approaches to assess recipients' needs and identify those who may be unable to participate in regular work activities. While some use an up-front assessment to make this determination, others use the labor market as a test, granting an exemption only after a recipient has been unsuccessful in participating in employment activities or in finding employment. Due to the nature of the personal and family challenges faced by TANF recipients (e.g., domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, learning disabilities), the assessment and exemption process often is an ongoing one.

The third task is monitoring participation in required activities. Because TANF recipients may be participating in a variety of activities provided by a broad range of providers, completion of this task often requires extensive coordination and communication between multiple agencies. Because many TANF recipients experience what are sometimes referred to as "hidden barriers" to employment, issues that might affect a recipient's ability to participate may not surface until after participation commences. In some cases, these circumstances may provide "good cause" for not meeting participation requirements. In others, they might be severe enough to result in an exemption from program requirements. The distinction between good cause and exemptions in the current TANF environment is an important one. When a TANF recipient is exempted from program requirements, she is no longer required to participate in program activities. In contrast, "good cause" often is used to grant an "excused absence" from participating in program activities, usually for a limited period of time. Some common reasons for granting "good cause" include attendance at medical, school or court appointments, presence of an unstable housing situation, and participation in mental health or substance abuse treatment.

The fourth task involves defining what will trigger the start of the sanctioning process. For example, a sanction may be imposed immediately upon non-compliance or after a specified number of weeks of non-compliance. What triggers a sanction may be different for initial and subsequent sanctions. The fifth task involves defining the actual process for imposing a sanction, including the timing and content of any notices that will be sent to alert recipients that the sanction will be imposed and when the sanction will actually take effect. The final task involves establishing a process for re-engaging sanctioned recipients in program activities. At a minimum, this would include the specific requirements for curing the sanction, but may also include procedures for appealing a sanction decision and development of outreach or other strategies to encourage families to come into compliance.

To date, no systematic data has been collected on how sanctions are being implemented, probably because many of the key decisions are left to local offices, making it to difficult to collect this information in a cost-effective manner. There may be considerable variation from office to office, and possibly from one worker to another within the same office. Factors that might influence the implementation of sanctions include the "culture" of the welfare office, especially the strategies used to communicate the importance of work and to encourage compliance, staff workloads and the complexity of the service delivery system. In an ideal world, no one would actually bear the cost of being sanctioned because the threat of a sanction itself would encourage program compliance, either through active participation in job search or other work-related activities or by more accurate reporting of earnings by recipients who are already employed. However, early evidence shows that sanctions do not work in this way for many TANF recipients, making implementation procedures a critical component of understanding the role sanctions play in welfare reform.

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