This analysis suggests that sanction policies, administrative procedures, and case manager discretion all influence how sanctions are implemented at the local level. Sanction policies provide a framework for implementing TANF sanctions while administrative procedures provide case managers with the information and tools they need to impose the sanctions. In all the sites, case managers were well schooled in the structure of sanction policies and how to apply them. In deciding whether to impose a sanction, case managers consider both the severity of the sanction and the ease with which it can be applied. Some managers are hesitant to impose a more stringent sanction if they believe it will create too much hardship for a family, and many choose not to apply sanctions if the administrative procedures are cumbersome.
The extent to which case managers use their discretion in deciding whether to impose sanctions largely depends on their workload. When workloads are high and administrative procedures not particularly cumbersome, managers tend to base their sanction decisions solely on client participation, relying little on their discretion. When workloads are more manageable, case managers exercise considerable discretion in deciding whether and when to impose sanctions. Case managers often choose not to impose a sanction when they know that a family is facing serious personal and family challenges and actively working to overcome those challenges. Case managers with more manageable workloads also invest time in trying to reengage recipients in work activities before imposing a sanction. Only after those efforts fail do they begin the process of imposing a sanction.
In all the study sites, case managers report that encouraging the participation of all TANF recipients in a standard set of work activities (primarily job search) is an ongoing challenge because of the broad array of personal and family challenges clients face. Case managers rely on alternative program options when they are available and needed but feel that their efforts to address clients' individual circumstances often are constrained because of the emphasis on engaging recipients in a standard set of countable work activities. While they have some flexibility to modify recipients' employment plans, case managers would prefer a system that routinely permits them to engage recipients in a broader range of program activities. They also feel that their efforts to address recipients' individual needs are hampered by recipients themselves. Despite routine assessments, case managers report that many personal and family challenges often remain unidentified until after participation problems arise.