ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 9. Mandates and Sanctions


If certain groups of welfare recipients are required to participate in a work first program, planners need to define precisely what is required and what the penalties are for noncompliance. Sanctions are a tool to bring participants into the program and to motivate them in their job search. Therefore, the success of sanctions is judged not by the number of sanctions ultimately imposed, but by the extent to which those under the mandate do participate. Intent-to-sanction (or warning) notices are sufficient to bring many participants into compliance. Others do not comply even after sanctions are imposed. Sanctioning rates in work first programs that MDRC has studied range from 3 percent (in Florida's Project Independence) to 37 percent (in Grand Rapids, Michigan's, JOBS program) over a one-year follow-up period.

Questions to Address in Designing Mandates and Sanction Policies

  • How flexible will the mandate be? Within the structure of a broad mandate, it may be useful to build in some flexibility-in either allowable activities or hours of participation-for case managers to design employment plans based on individual situations. Inflexible mandates may lead staff to defer or exempt participants who might be able to participate or work part time. (See section 8 for more on participation requirements.) However, more flexible mandates may make it harder for a state to achieve the federally required participation rates (see Appendix A).
  • How will the mandate be presented to participants? Some programs discuss sanctions prominently in order to encourage participation. Others try to be upbeat, promoting the opportunities presented by the program rather than threatening sanctions. Those programs that do not emphasize the mandate up front need to make sure safeguards are in place so that participants are not sanctioned without adequate notice.
  • How much effort will be made to bring people into compliance before a sanction is imposed? Some programs send out intent-to-sanction notices as soon as participants fail to respond to program mandates. Others make repeated efforts to contact participants and learn the reasons for noncompliance. The conciliation process can also vary in length. For example, Utah's welfare-to-work program has a comprehensive conciliation policy, involving both a home visit and case review. Administrators there say that noncompliance is usually the result of participation barriers of which case managers were not aware and that once those barriers are addressed, participants come into compliance.
  • What form will sanctions take? Sanctions may be a reduction in the family's grant, removal of the noncompliant parent from the grant, or loss of the entire grant. The more severe the sanction, the stronger the message and the incentive to participate. However, severe sanctions also carry greater potential risks for individuals-and their children-who do not participate, for whatever reason. In general, the harsher the sanction, the more important it is to make clear to participants what is expected of them and the consequences of not meeting those requirements, as well as to provide clear guidelines for conciliation.
  • How can a sanction be cured? Sanctions can be cured either as soon as the participant comes into compliance or only after a certain period of time, often increasing with consecutive incidents of noncompliance. Mandatory minimum sanctions can send a strong message and save staff from the paperwork that can be involved in repeatedly recalculating grants. However, sanctions that are hard to cure give people little incentive to comply before the end of the sanction period. To avoid the extra paperwork that might ensue if participants dropped in and out, some programs require participants to show good faith (for example, by complying for two weeks) before reinstating their grant retroactive to the date of compliance.