By Courtney A. Fiske*
A report released last week by Legal Momentum  reveals the serious repercussions of financial sanctions in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)  program. As the report, The Sanction Epidemic in the TANF Program , argues, these sanctions—overly harsh and haphazardly applied—jeopardize the well-being our nation’s most economically vulnerable.
Established with the 1996 welfare reform, TANF provides direct cash assistance to families with dependent children, ninety percent of whom are single mothers . Median benefits are meager: less than 30% of the official poverty level for a family of three in 2008 .
States retain the ability to sanction, or withhold funds from, participants who fail to comply with TANF’s various eligibility requirements, which differ state by state. Federal rules mandate prorated sanctions only for those parents who violate the program’s work and child support prescriptions. Yet, as Legal Momentum’s report reveals, state sanctions reach far beyond these two stipulations—and are far more punitive than federal law demands:
- Forty-five states impose full family sanctions—a complete denial of assistance—when adult recipients violate their work obligations;
- In 2000, thirteen states terminated Medicaid coverage for sanctioned parents.
These sanctions have led to mass attrition from the TANF program, the report argues:
- In 2008, states reported 219,000 cases closed due to a sanction. At 12.8% of total case volume, this represented the highest reported percentage in TANF’s history;
- The number of recipient families fell from 2.06 million per month in 2005 to 1.84 million per month in 2009. This decrease came even as unemployment rose from 5.1% to 9.3% over the same period;
- In 1995, the final year of TANF’s predecessor program, 84% of eligible parents received benefits. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, only 40% of eligible parents received benefits—a statistic which, by all estimates, has fallen further in recent years.
Legal Momentum’s review uncovered that many of these sanctions are imposed in a wrongful, perverse, and discriminatory manner:
- Sanctioned parents tend to have higher barriers to compliance, including more dependent children, fewer years of high school education, and less access to transportation;
- National TANF guidelines offer forgiveness in cases where insurmountable obstacles to compliance exist, such as illness or failure to receive an appointment notice. Yet, a 2004 study  in three states revealed that some case managers mete out sanctions without any effort to determine the causes of non-compliance;
- Studies in ten states found that African-American parents are more likely to be sanctioned than other racial groups;
- Tennessee’s TANF agency found that a full 30% of state-wide sanctions had been issued in error.
This fallout in TANF participation has had real consequences, particularly for those families most in need, the report asserts:
- In 2004, more than 1.7 million single-mother families earned a total annual income from welfare and work of less than $3,000: a 56% increase from 1995;
- In 2002, sanctioned families in three major metropolitan areas were 200% more likely to lack sufficient food and 500% more likely to pay their bills with borrowed money than TANF recipients. Such findings, evidencing a sharp decrease in the welfare of sanctioned families, hold across numerous studies.
With TANF up for reauthorization next fall, Congressional leaders have an opportunity to rethink the rules regulating how states can spend—and withhold—their TANF funds. Amending counterproductive sanction practices should rank at the top of Congress’s list.
*Courtney Fiske is currently a Research intern with the National Council for Research on Women. She is pursuing a BA in Social Studies at Harvard University.