Use of TANF Work-Oriented Sanctions in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Deciding Whether to Impose a Sanction


Nonparticipation in work activities triggers the start of a process whereby case managers decide whether to impose a sanction. Case managers might simply base their decision on a client's record of participation, or they might follow a more personal approach, taking into account a client's unique circumstances. The two approaches afford case managers markedly different degrees of discretion: the first approach offers little discretion while the second approach offers considerable discretion. While less discretion may result in more equitable application of sanctions, case managers' exercise of more discretion provides clients with the opportunity to disclose and resolve issues that may have contributed to their inability to participate in program activities.

The study sites used a combination of the two approaches. When a recipient shows no record of participation in program activities and has had no contact with any program staff, case managers almost always decide to impose a sanction. The process for handling cases that show some record of participation is much more complicated, resulting in some variation among case managers within a site and substantial variation across sites.

Key Findings:
Deciding Whether to Impose a Sanction
  • Case managers often exercise considerable discretion in deciding whether and when to initiate a sanction; office culture, workload, individual work styles, and client circumstances all influence their decisions.
  • Except when workload issues prevent them from doing so, case managers in most offices try to reengage clients in program activities before initiating a sanction.

When case managers need to decide whether to impose a sanction, they weigh the cost of imposing the sanction against potential benefits. When sanctions are not imposed, the result may appear inequitable to other clients who are sanctioned for nonparticipation. In addition, if clients do not believe that a sanction will be imposed, they may be less likely to comply with program requirements. Case managers work in different office cultures, carry varying workloads, and build different relationships with their clients, all of which influence how they approach their work generally and how they approach sanctions specifically.

Sanction Message. Several factors converge to create a unique culture in each welfare office. With respect to sanctions, program administrators often set the tone as to how they are implemented. For example, a local administrator may decide that sanctions should be imposed only as a last resort; others, believing that the imposition of sanctions will lead to greater participation, might decide to impose sanctions without delay. In some cases, the local office culture may reflect a position taken by state administrators and handed down to local administrators. The use of sanctions in South Carolina over time illustrates the extent to which program administrators influence the decision on whether to impose sanctions. After a change in administration, the fraction of cases closed because of a sanction dropped from 25 percent to between 5 and 10 percent. At the outset of welfare reform, South Carolina's state welfare administrator emphasized a strong "work first" message that used immediate full-family sanctions to promote participation in work activities. His replacement, with pressure from local advocacy groups, changed the state's sanction philosophy from using sanctions as a first to a last resort.

Case Manager's Workload. When case managers carry large caseloads, they are more likely to rely solely on participation reports to decide whether to impose a sanction. Large caseloads make it impossible for case managers to individualize case management activities and less likely to be able to do the work necessary to uncover the conditions that might be contributing to participation problems. When case managers carry large caseloads and need to follow complex procedures for imposing a sanction, time constraints alone lead to the imposition of few sanctions. In fact, local offices with high workloads tend to automate rather than individualize the sanction process. For example, in one local office in New Jersey with heavy workloads, case managers rely on reports from employment service providers to determine when to impose sanctions. In another local office in New Jersey where case managers carry more manageable workloads they conduct home visits, telephone clients, and send letters to clients before imposing a sanction.

Complexity of the Sanction Process. In study sites characterized by a complex sanction process, case managers often are reluctant to impose sanctions because of the time needed to navigate the sanction process. For example, in one of the local sites, the review process for imposing a sanction includes a conciliation review, an extensive written report, and approval from the supervisor and local office administrator--a process that takes between two and four months. Accordingly, workers report that they use sanctions to encourage compliance but rarely impose them.

Relationship with the Client. Case managers in the study sites frequently mentioned that their decisions about whether to impose sanctions are influenced substantially by their relationships with their clients. Case managers report that they are less likely to initiate a sanction if the client consistently communicates with them about their circumstances. It is when clients do not respond to case managers' telephone calls or letters that case managers tend to initiate a sanction. Case managers also indicated that they will continue to work with a nonparticipating client without imposing a sanction if the client is willing to "meet them halfway" by making an effort toward progressing in their work plan. For example, for a client seeking a medical exemption from work activities, the case manager may identify a doctor who will conduct the evaluation but require the client to make the appointment to obtain the necessary documentation.

Comfort Level in Imposing Sanctions. Case managers vary in their comfort level in imposing sanctions. Some case managers worry about the sanction's adverse consequences on a family. Other case managers feel strongly that a sanction encourages recipients otherwise not inclined to participate to do so. When they are able to take steps to make sure that clients do not have any personal or family challenges that may limit their ability to participate, some case managers are more comfortable in imposing sanctions. Some case managers, believing that certain nonparticipating clients have access to other resources, are less concerned about adverse consequences and more willing to impose a sanction.

Number and Types of Personal and Family Challenges. Some case managers noted that they often give substantial leeway to clients with several serious barriers such as homelessness, mental or physical health problems, and learning disabilities, among others. If they believe that clients are facing circumstances that interfere with their ability to work or participate in work activities, they might delay the imposition of a sanction. Some case managers also take extra time to learn what might be causing a participation problem. For example, a case manager in one of the sites reported "a gut feeling" about a client who was not participating in her case plan. After conducting a home visit, the case manager discovered that the client had a child with severe behavioral problems and another child who was sick. Another case manager indicated that she checks the case record to see if nonparticipating clients have access to child care and transportation benefits. If they lack such supports, the case manager does not initiate a sanction.

Efforts to Reengage Clients Before Imposing a Sanction. In most of the sites we visited, case managers described extensive efforts to reengage nonparticipating clients before imposing a sanction. Case managers in each of the local offices send clients a sanction warning notice or letter advising them that that they are out of compliance, describing what they must do to meet participation requirements, and outlining the consequences of continued nonparticipation. Case managers in most of the local offices said that they contacted noncompliant clients by telephone. Two local offices, one in New Jersey and one in South Carolina, conduct home visits to nonparticipants. In some local offices, employment service providers also attempt to reengage nonparticipating clients. In all of the local offices, program administrators emphasize to case managers the importance of documenting efforts to reengage nonparticipating clients in the event that clients appeal the sanction. In both offices in South Carolina, the local office administrators will not approve a sanction unless case managers have documented that they made several attempts to reengage the nonparticipating client.

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