Use of TANF Work-Oriented Sanctions in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. From Policy to Practice: Implementing TANF Sanctions

In most states, state law specifies the approach to sanctioning noncompliant TANF recipients. To ensure that all noncompliant families face the same penalty, states often specify in great detail the amount of the sanction, its duration, and the actions a TANF recipient must take to come into compliance. While it is relatively easy to catalogue state sanction policies, we know little about how sanctions are applied in practice and how their use varies. Federal law is silent on how TANF sanctions should be implemented. For example, we do not know if TANF staff routinely apply sanctions for all recipients immediately after a specified period of noncompliance or if they consider a client's circumstances before imposing a sanction. Similarly, we do not know what, if any, actions workers take to encourage compliance before imposing a sanction. To gain greater insight into how sanctions are used to promote participation in work activities, this chapter presents analyses of detailed case study data on the implementation of TANF sanctions in each of two welfare offices in the three study states.

Two fundamental research questions guide our analysis:

  • What is the relative importance of policies, administrative procedures, and worker discretion in determining how TANF sanctions are implemented?
  • What influence do individual client circumstances have on the implementation of TANF sanctions?

To answer these questions, we divide the implementation of TANF sanctions into six tasks: (1) informing clients about work requirements and sanctions, (2) defining program expectations and requirements, (3) monitoring participation in work activities, (4) deciding whether to impose a sanction, (5) imposing a sanction, and (6) reengaging sanctioned recipients in program activities. We consider each of the tasks in the order in which they typically occur.

For the present analysis, we gathered information on the implementation of TANF sanctions from several sources and using various case study methods. In each local office, we conducted semistructured interviews with program administrators, eligibility workers, case managers, and employment services staff, reviewed a small number of cases, and examined written program materials and documents. Given that we conducted interviews with a small number of staff in only a few offices in states with different sanction approaches, it is difficult to make broad generalizations about many aspects of the implementation of TANF sanctions. The information presented in this chapter represents our efforts to identify common themes within and across offices based on the information provided to us. We acknowledge that there may be a broader range of approaches and perceptions about the challenges to implementation than we uncovered.

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