By Caroline Polk
Sunday, September 2, 2001
The phrase "sanctioned off" is now commonplace among those touched by the 1996 welfare law. It refers to a family losing its only source of revenue for infractions of welfare regulations, sometimes for as little as being 10 minutes late.
BALTIMORE (WOMENSENEWS)--A mother who prefers to be known as Michelle first went on welfare 15 years ago. She had worked in a grocery chain for 16 years, but she was laid off during a recession. Her spell on welfare probably would have been brief had she not become involved in an abusive relationship: Her partner wouldn't allow Michelle to work and spent her welfare grants on alcohol and cocaine. Finally free of her abusive partner, Michelle had new hope of reentering the workforce--only to find that her companion had given her AIDS.
After the welfare laws changed, Michelle received a letter telling her she needed to attend an orientation; she immediately had her doctor complete the forms for a medical exemption. Michelle sent the forms to the agency, but she never received a reply.
Fatigued from her illness and discouraged, Michelle did not attend orientation and was sanctioned, losing a portion of her cash aid. Michelle felt she had no recourse but to send her son to live with a relative in another city. She has given up on welfare entirely, now, and believes that the sanction destroyed her family.
Michelle is one example of how the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, block grant program, played out in some women's lives. Signed into law five years ago on Aug. 22, the law was supposed to "end welfare as we know it," ostensibly by moving recipients into paying jobs but also by promoting marriage through measures making it difficult for single mothers to rely on federal assistance.
Congress will soon begin debating whether and how to reauthorize the welfare reform legislation. Several experts argue that if legislators are serious about moving people from welfare into permanent, full-time employment, they may need to decide whether states' sanction policies do what they should or whether they ultimately delay self-sufficiency.
Under the act, states must sanction clients who do not comply with program requirements. Sanctions begin with reductions in cash assistance and end with removal from the state's welfare program. When sanctioned recipients begin to comply with program requirements, the sanctions are lifted, according to guidelines that vary from state to state.
Sanctions are supposed to encourage compliance rather than punish noncompliance. Two studies presented at the 41st annual conference of the National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics, however, found that sanctions may be ineffective, at best, and cruel, at worst.
Since 1998, Ronald J. Mancoske of the Welfare Reform Research Project of the Southern University at New Orleans has been following 570 families participating in Louisiana's TANF program, focusing on the effects of the ultimate sanction: removal from the rolls. To date, 22 percent of the women have been "sanctioned off" for reaching time limits, 6.9 percent for not meeting program requirements and 2.4 percent for other compliance problems.
Whether compared with the women who remain on Louisiana state rolls or with those who left voluntarily, the women forced off welfare fared poorly.
They "had the least resources, the most health and mental health problems, the least employment, the need for the most services and received the least supportive services," Mancoske said in a follow-up e-mail interview. His study found that clinical depression was the greatest predictor of being pushed off welfare, and 60 percent of those whose benefits were terminated remain unemployed; in contrast, nearly 60 percent of those who left voluntarily have jobs.
Regardless if a woman leaves welfare involuntarily or voluntarily, the result is continued poverty, a finding that Mancoske says mirrors the situation in other states. When Mancoske looked at women's mean income--the sum of wages, state payments, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, child support and food stamps--he found that those who voluntarily left the program earned an average of $869 per month; those who were forced off averaged $651 a month.
Moreover, Mancoske is doubtful that sanctions bring about compliance.
"We do not have reason to think that people are sanctioned, and then come back into the system and have improved circumstances." Mancoske said. "It is more evident that they drop out of the system and have greater problems."
William C. Rainford, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, is also skeptical of the effectiveness of sanctions. At the welfare research conference, he described preliminary results from his ongoing study of recipients in Alameda County, Calif. He has interviewed 15 clients to date about their welfare experience, their perceptions of the effects of sanctions, their daily lives after being sanctioned, their well-being and their barriers to compliance.
Fourteen of the 15 women Rainford interviewed, including Michelle, had been sanctioned for failing to attend an orientation.
"Had they attended orientation," he said, "they would have been screened for barriers to compliance, been assigned a caseworker, and, hopefully, received supportive services." Michelle, for example, would have learned that she was eligible for Social Security disability benefits, support that might have helped her keep her family together.
Noncompliance was generally caused by a significant barrier, such as health problems or a lack of child care.
"Sanctions could not have prevented noncompliance," says Rainford. "One of the interviewees said, 'You can take a thousand (dollars) away from me. I can't do what they (the welfare agency) want me to.'"
Sanctions affect both cash aid and access to services. Rainford points out that the "loss of supportive services derails the interviewees in their efforts to gain self-sufficiency. They do lose access to job training. They do lose their child care benefit ... most of those interviewed reported a substantial loss of food stamp allotment at the same time the sanction hit."
In many cases, sanctions could be avoided. Rainford pointed out that welfare recipients often have "simple problems" that could be remedied, although other barriers to compliance need more intensive intervention. When women try to contact the agency, he said, "it is nearly impossible to get a real person on the phone, and when (they) do, according to the interviewees, it is someone who lacks empathy or ability to solve the problem."
Not everyone, however, thinks that sanctions are a bad idea.
Douglas Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs, argued the issue is complicated. "Most people don't want to be on welfare ... one would hope agencies would figure out how to support women trying to leave the rolls. Everyone would prefer not to punish people."
At the same time, he said, sanctioning needs to continue. "The underlying point is that no one is talking about a pure entitlement anymore. Recipients have to face the consequences of the decisions that they make."
Gwendolyn Mink, a political scientist at Smith College and author of "Welfare's End," holds a very different view. Sanctions reflect "the underlying premise of welfare reform--that people on welfare are to blame for their economic needs and that the only way to deal with them is to engineer their lives," Mink said.
She also noted the strong possibility that racism continues to play a role in who is selected to be sanctioned. She cited research published in the April 2001 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, which found that states with higher proportions of women of color receiving TANF benefits have more stringent sanction policies, and asserted that, in terms of absolute numbers, women of color are sanctioned at higher rates than their white counterparts.
In addition to having concerns about racial bias, Mink believes sanctions are harmful not just because of their economic effects but also because "in many situations, the power to make independent judgments about oneself and one's children is eviscerated."
Kate Kahan, executive director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a Montana group that provides information and assistance for TANF recipients, also believes that sanctions are counterproductive.
She noted that the legislature in her state took the welfare reform goal of caseload reduction to heart: "In the first year, there was a 60 percent reduction in the caseload directly because of sanctions. Women were sanctioned for being 10 minutes late for an appointment or for not completing paperwork." When the organization confronted state legislators about the severity of the policy, many of them "did not know what a sanction was," Kahan said.
Montana's sanction policies have since been relaxed, in large part due to the organization's efforts. Kahan noted that compounding the negative effects of sanctions is the fact that many caseworkers are not trained well in program policies or in explaining those policies to TANF recipients. As a result, sanctions are unevenly applied, and many women are left wondering why they were sanctioned.
"The whole system seems to have been designed to be as confusing as possible," Kahan said.
Caroline Polk is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.
National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics:
Welfare Reform Research Project, Southern University at New Orleans:
Social Investment Research Group, University of California, Berkeley:
Welfare Reform Academy, Univ. of Maryland School of Public Affairs:
Working for Equality and Economic Liberation: