Use of TANF Work-Oriented Sanctions in Illinois, New Jersey, and South Carolina. Research Questions


The implementation of more stringent sanctions has been accompanied by keen interest in how sanctions are used and their associated outcomes. In a review of earlier studies on the use and effectiveness of TANF sanctions (Pavetti, Derr, and Hesketh, 2003), we found the following:

  • Sanctions are imposed relatively often, with studies following a cohort of recipients reporting sanction rates between 45 and 52 percent over a 12- to 18-month period.
  • Despite some variation, most studies find that sanctioned families are more likely than nonsanctioned families to exhibit one or more characteristics that make them harder to employ.
  • Studies consistently find that families that have left the welfare rolls due to a sanction are less likely than their nonsanctioned counterparts to be employed and more likely to return to the welfare system.
  • The few studies that have investigated variations in state sanction policies to determine whether stricter sanction policies influence TANF recipients' participation decisions find that stricter sanctions lead to greater caseload declines and increased exits from TANF to employment.

The research questions examined in this study are similar to those addressed in previous studies. However, two features make the present study unique: (1) we use comparable methodologies and data from multiple states, which provides much greater contextual information for understanding how and how often sanctions are used, and (2) we combine analysis of case study, administrative, and survey data to provide a comprehensive analysis of the use of TANF sanctions. These features permit us to add to both the depth and breadth of our knowledge of how TANF sanctions are being used to encourage participation in work activities and movement toward self-sufficiency.

Our examination focuses on four important research questions:

  1. How have sanctions been implemented in local welfare offices? In most states, it is the state that formulates sanction policies. Despite considerable documentation on the structure of state sanction policies, little information exists on how these policies are applied in practice. Of particular interest is how much discretion TANF workers exercise in implementing sanctions and how workers and local program administrators balance individual client needs with work requirements.
  2. How often are sanctions imposed? Previous studies of TANF sanctions rely on a broad range of strategies to examine how often sanctions are used. However, differences in methodology have made it difficult to interpret estimates across studies. Thus, our study applies the same methodology in three states to increase our understanding of how often sanctions are used and to identify what factors might contribute to any observed differences.
  3. How do the characteristics of sanctioned and nonsanctioned recipients compare? Previous studies find that sanctioned recipients are more likely than nonsanctioned recipients to exhibit characteristics that are associated with longer welfare stays and lower rates of employment. However, only a few of these studies compare sanctioned versus nonsanctioned families in terms of the existence of personal and family challenges (such as mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence issues) and logistical challenges (such as child care and transportation). This information can help clarify whether particular groups of families are at higher risk of receiving sanctions. By relying on survey data collected to examine the characteristics of the current TANF caseload in two of the three study states, the present study can compare the presence of a broad range of assets and liabilities among sanctioned and nonsanctioned recipients.
  4. How do sanctioned recipients fare over time? Given that many sanctioned families face the potential of eventually losing all their cash assistance, policymakers have expressed considerable interest in knowing how sanctioned recipients fare over time. What proportion eventually complies with program requirements? What proportion finds employment at the time of the sanction or shortly thereafter? By exploiting the longitudinal nature of the administrative data available in all the study states and using detailed information available on employment status over time in one state, we are able to explore these questions in some depth.

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