The present study did not set out to examine the extent to which sanctions promote compliance with work requirements. However, the results suggest that program participation is probably higher than it would be without the use of sanctions. Case managers often use the prospect of a sanction to promote compliance, and many sanctioned families eventually do come into compliance. A question of interest not addressed by the present study is whether a more stringent sanction promotes greater participation in work activities. None of the study states imposed only a partial sanction; therefore, we do not know how the use of sanctions and recipients' responses to them might differ in an environment where the potential for adverse consequences is not as great. In South Carolina, the stringency of the sanction almost certainly contributed to concerns about the number of families that were sanctioned. However, we don't know whether the stringency of the sanctions might also have contributed to greater compliance. We do know that the state set the bar higher than other states for imposing a sanction, but other factors may also be at play. With sanction policies similar in New Jersey and Illinois, our findings there do not allow us to draw any conclusions about how the design and structure of sanctions influence the rate of participation in work activities.
A study that looks at the relationship between state sanction policies and work participation and employment rates may offer some insight into whether a particular approach to sanctions, controlling for state characteristics and other welfare reform policies, contributes to higher work participation rates. Such a study could build on earlier studies that look at the relationship between various state TANF policies and caseload declines. A key methodological challenge of such a study would be developing a strategy to account for employment among recipients who leave the TANF rolls and for participation in employment activities for those who remain.
Finally, a study that looks at the relationship between sanctions and time limits could provide greater insight into how these policies work together or separately to encourage families to become self-sufficient. In states where sanctions are imposed routinely for non-compliance, fewer families than expected may reach time limits. This could occur if sanctions encourage recipients who might have been long-term recipients to engage in activities that help them to move towards self-sufficiency more rapidly or if they remove recipients from the TANF rolls who do not comply with program requirements and who may have stayed for an extended period in the absence of sanctions. In contrast, in states like South Carolina where sanctions are only applied as a last resort, more families may reach time limits and lose their TANF benefits as a result of them.