Use of TANF Work-Oriented Sanctions in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. How Common Are Sanctions in the Three Study States?


Comparable to earlier studies by Fein and Lee (1999) and Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000), our analysis provides information on the use of sanctions for a cohort of recipients that we follow over time. The analysis allows us to answer the question: What fraction of current TANF recipients is now sanctioned or will eventually be sanctioned? We believe that the study's estimates provide a reliable picture of the extent to which the study states impose sanctions, the extent to which recipients come into compliance after a sanction is imposed and a relatively complete accounting of the number of families that may be adversely affected for extended periods by the financial penalties imposed on them. Because some recipients might have been sanctioned before our period of observation, our estimates provide a lower bound of the likelihood that a recipient has ever been or ever will be sanctioned. Importantly, these estimates do not account for all families whose behavior might have been influenced by the state's sanction policy. For example, they do not account for potential sanctions that are resolved through a reconciliation process prior to being imposed or for families who may have changed their behavior in response to the possibility of a sanction being imposed.

There are many factors that might influence how often sanctions are imposed. Before presenting our findings for the study states, we highlight particular factors that we expect could influence the rates we observe. Owing to differences in the design of South Carolina's sanction policy and lower benefit levels, we expected  before undertaking our analysis  that the state's sanction rate would be lower than the partial but higher than the full-family sanction rate in Illinois and New Jersey. We based our prediction on two assumptions. First, we assumed that the use of an immediate full-family sanction in South Carolina would encourage greater compliance before imposition of the sanction, thus lowering the state's sanction rate to somewhere below the partial sanction rates in Illinois or New Jersey. Second, we assumed that the greater financial penalty associated with a full-family sanction (due to higher grant levels) in Illinois and New Jersey would encourage greater compliance than the lower financial penalty in South Carolina, resulting in a higher full-family sanction rate in South Carolina. After learning through our site visit to South Carolina that the state has chosen to use sanctions only as a last resort, we revised our expectations and anticipated that we would observe a very low sanction rate in South Carolina, which would be lower than the full family sanction rate in either New Jersey or Illinois.

Illinois's and New Jersey's sanction policies are nearly identical and their benefit levels, similar; however, we expected to see a lower sanction rate in Illinois because of its applicant job search requirement and because of the presence of more longer-term recipients. The applicant job search requirement is intended to engage families in work activities rapidly and to provide TANF benefits only to those willing to look for work actively or who can demonstrate that they are experiencing personal or family challenges that limit their ability to work. Almost certainly, among the families that do not fulfill the job search requirement are those that would have experienced difficulty in meeting the work requirement if their application for assistance had been approved; such families would have been candidates for sanctioning if the requirement were not in place. Our visits to the two local offices confirmed that the offices enforce this requirement, with administrators reporting that many families that apply for assistance never complete the process.

In both Illinois and New Jersey, case managers appear to impose sanctions regularly when recipients are not complying with work requirements and they have exhausted their efforts to reengage them. Since recipients are expected to begin meeting their work requirements shortly after they begin receiving assistance, we would expect sanctions to be imposed less frequently on longer-term recipients who presumably are meeting their work requirements or they would have already been sanctioned. Since Illinois has more long-term recipients on their caseload, we would expect their sanction rate to be somewhat lower than New Jersey's.

As we anticipated, the rate at which the study states impose sanctions differs somewhat between Illinois and New Jersey and, substantially between South Carolina and the other two study states (see Table III.1). Over 10 months  the maximum period for which we have data for all three states  only 5 percent of South Carolina TANF families had received a full-family sanction. In Illinois and New Jersey, the full-family sanction rate over the same 10-month period was 10 and 12 percent, respectively. Over this same time period, 24 percent of families in Illinois and 30 percent of families in New Jersey experienced any type of sanction, including a full-family sanction. When we consider the full 18-month time period for which we have data, the percentage of families with any grant reduction due to a sanction in Illinois and New Jersey increases to 31 and 39 percent, respectively. In both Illinois and New Jersey, about 40 percent of those sanctioned over the 18-month follow-up period were sanctioned within the first three months and about 60 percent were sanctioned within the first six months.

The sanction rates in all three states are lower than those found in previous studies using a similar methodology. For example, in their analysis of the use of partial sanctions in Indiana, Holcomb and Ratcliffe (2000) found a sanction rate of 45 percent over a 12-month period. In their analysis of the use of gradual full-family sanctions for participation in work-related activities in Delaware, Fein and Lee (1999) found a sanction rate of 52 percent over an 18-month period.

Table III.1.
Incidence and Timing of Sanctions
(Percentages, Unless Otherwise Indicated)
  Illinois New Jersey South Carolina
Initial Partial Full Any Initial Partial Full Any Full
Full Sample
Ever received sanction through month:
1 6 3 8 8 0 8 1
3 10 5 13 15 3 16 2
6 16 7 19 23 8 25 3
9 20 9 24 28 11 30 4
10 21 10 25 29 12 31 5
12 23 11 27 32 14 33 n.a.
15 25 12 29 35 16 37 n.a.
18 26 13 31 38 17 39 n.a.
New Entrants Only
Ever received sanction through month:
1 1 3 4 2 0 2 0
3 4 4 8 10 1 10 1
6 10 5 14 22 5 23 3
9 16 7 20 27 11 29 4
10 17 7 21 29 12 30 5
12 19 8 23 31 14 33 n.a.
15 21 9 25 34 16 35 n.a.
18 22 10 26 36 17 38 n.a.
Sample Size
Full sample 33,478 51,539 10,852
New entrants only 2,246 23,267 961
Source: Analysis of state administrative data by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
Note: "New entrants" are defined as those whose case opened in November 2001 in Illinois; those who were not receiving TANF in June 2000, but who entered or returned to the program some time during the one-year period, July 2000 to June 2001 in New Jersey; and those whose case opened in June 2002 in South Carolina.
n.a. = Data are not available.

Surprisingly, in all three states, the sanction rates for new entrants are almost identical to those for all recipients. Working on the assumption that many noncompliant families would have already been sanctioned off the rolls, we would have expected the sanction rate for new entrants to be higher. The similarity in rates might reflect the presence of many short-term recipients on the caseloads, creating less of a distinction between current recipients and new entrants than was evident before welfare reform. In addition, in some cases, these new entrants may be clients who are returning to TANF after receiving a full-family sanction and may, therefore, be particularly prone to receiving another sanction.

The availability of county-level data in New Jersey and Illinois allows us to compare sanction rates in different localities that are operating under the same set of policies. In New Jersey, we find that sanctioning rates vary substantially by county, even after adjusting for differences across counties in the demographic characteristics of their caseloads (not shown). Adjusted partial sanctioning rates across the New Jersey counties during a 12-month period range from less than 20 percent of recipients sanctioned in some of the more rural counties in the northwestern part of the state to 41 percent sanctioned in Essex County, New Jersey's largest and most urban county (where Newark is located). Similarly, adjusted full-family sanctioning rates range from 5 percent or less in some smaller, more rural counties to 20 percent for full-family sanctions in Essex County. In Illinois, those living outside Cook County (where Chicago is located) were slightly more likely to experience any sanction but equally likely to experience a partial sanction. Since New Jersey has a county-administered and Illinois has a state-administered TANF system, the differences in these findings are not surprising. Because it is a county-administered system, counties in New Jersey have more discretion in how they implement sanction and other work-related policies than counties in Illinois.

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