Use of TANF Work-Oriented Sanctions in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Informing Clients About Work Requirements and Sanctions


Sanctions are intended to encourage recipients who otherwise might not be inclined toward work or program participation to participate in work activities. Accordingly, clients must know what is expected of them and understand the associated consequences. In addition, they must believe that sanctions will be enforced and recognize that adverse effects could result from them. Similar to other studies (U.S. DHHS 1999; Nixon, Kauff, and Losby 1999; Overby 1998), we find that TANF clients routinely receive information on work requirements and sanctions, but case managers are skeptical about how well they understand it, at least initially. To increase the effectiveness of sanctions, some case managers regularly remind clients that a sanction will be imposed if they do not participate in work activities.

Key Findings:
Informing Clients about Work Requirements and Sanctions
  • Clients in the study sites receive information about work requirements and sanctions often and in many forms. However, case managers believe that both personal and organizational issues undermine some clients' ability to fully grasp the consequences associated with nonparticipation.
  • Many case managers believe that sanctions can influence some clients' program participation decisions. Therefore, they regularly use the prospect of a sanction to encourage recipients to participate in work activities.

In each of the study sites, TANF clients routinely receive information on work requirements and sanctions both when they apply for assistance and when they begin a work activity, especially group job search. Information is primarily provided verbally in both one-on-one and group sessions. In some cases, the verbal information is supplemented with written materials.

In all the sites, clients first learn about work requirements and sanctions in their initial intake interview. Work requirements are described as a condition of eligibility, with sanctions presented as the consequence for not meeting them. In programs that offer group job search activities, the information is reiterated in a group orientation session that often serves as a gateway to the program. Case managers focus on work requirements and sanctions in great detail when they develop an employment, self-sufficiency, or individual responsibility plan with a TANF client. In all the sites, case managers typically give clients a copy of their signed employment plan, which outlines their rights and responsibilities. In one of the local offices in South Carolina, case managers visit clients in their homes to provide an overview of the TANF program, conduct an initial assessment, and develop an employment plan. As a part of the meeting, they give clients a "rights and responsibilities" handout that describes what is required of them and the consequences of not following through with their responsibilities.

Despite efforts to inform clients about sanctions, case managers believe that personal and organizational issues sometimes undermine clients' ability to grasp fully the consequences associated with nonparticipation. First, case managers acknowledge that the volume of information clients receive about other welfare policies (e.g., time limits, diversionary assistance, earned income disregards) and the resources available to help them find employment (e.g., job search programs and child care assistance) may interfere with their ability to understand completely the TANF work requirements and associated sanctions. The receipt of so much information at one time makes it difficult for clients to focus on any one aspect of the program requirements or consequences.

Second, case managers believe that the complexity of clients' lives sometimes interferes with their ability to focus on future consequences. In the experience of case managers, clients overwhelmed by personal and family challenges such as substance abuse, physical and mental health conditions, domestic violence, and child behavioral problems have difficulty focusing on anything other than how to address their most immediate needs and problems. Third, case managers express concern that clients may be aware of TANF sanctions but do not believe they will be imposed. Case managers think that clients' skepticism stems from limited use of sanctions before welfare reform and the uneven and changing imposition of sanctions in the current system. Finally, case managers believe that because some clients have other sources of support (e.g., unreported employment income, family, a spouse or partner, other government assistance, and so forth), they pay little attention to any information they receive on sanctions, and do not respond when a sanction is imposed, presumably because the adverse consequences are buffered by the availability of other supplemental resources.

Still, case managers report that, for some clients, the possibility of a sanction is sufficient to motivate them to participate in work activities. Thus, some case managers remind clients about the consequences of nonparticipation at every opportunity, but especially during telephone conversations and meetings, during conciliation reviews, and by means of sanction notices. Many case managers in the study sites indicated that the current sanction policies give them more leverage to enforce participation than previous sanction policies, thus making them more likely to use them to encourage participation. Case managers believe that, through their efforts, they are able to influence the behavior of some recipients, reducing the need to impose sanctions. Thus, they believe that sanction rates may not fully capture the impact of sanctions on increasing participation in work activities.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 1.18Mb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®