Order Code RS21070
November 19, 2001
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
TANF Sanctions – Brief Summary
Vee Burke and Gene Falk
Domestic Social Policy Division
The 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193) established a block grant program for
time-limited and work-conditioned aid for needy families with children called Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF requires that states penalize families if
a recipient refuses to engage in required work. States determine actual penalties.
According to TANF state plans, for a first violation, 19 states end family benefits until
compliance, or for a minimum penalty period. Others reduce benefits for a first
infraction. For repeat violations, penalties are increased in size or length. Counting both
first and subsequent violations, 38 jurisdictions under some circumstances have
provisions to penalize work infractions by ending family benefits for a time. Ultimately,
seven of those 38 jurisdictions end family benefits for life. In FY1999, sanctions
(including some not related to work) caused the closing of 156,000 TANF cases (6 %
of all closures).
Federal Rules. TANF law requires states to penalize families if a recipient refuses
to engage in required work and does not have good cause. (States may define exemptions
from work requirements and set standards for determining good cause for work refusal.)
The state is directed to reduce the family benefit by at least a “pro rata” share or to drop
the entire family from cash aid. Neither law or regulations define pro-rata. The law
stipulates that the penalty cannot be imposed on a single parent with a child under age 6
if she/he demonstrates an inability to obtain needed child care for a specified reason.1 If
a state fails to reduce or end TANF benefits for refusal to work without good cause, the
law requires that the state itself be penalized by loss of funds (between 1% and 5% of the
state’s basic TANF grant). The law explicitly permits a state to reduce a family’s benefit,
by an amount the state considers “appropriate,” if a family member fails without good
cause to comply with an individual responsibility plan (IRP) that he/she has signed. Most
state TANF plans include use of IRPs that establish an employment goal, set forth
obligations of the recipient and describe services to be provided by the state.
Three reasons are given in the law: unavailability of appropriate child care within a reasonable
distance from the person’s home or work site; unavailability or unsuitability of informal child care
by a relative or under other arrangements; and unavailability of appropriate and affordable formal
child care arrangements.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
State Sanction Policies. States determine TANF sanction procedures and
policies. Before imposing a sanction, states usually send warnings. Some seek to
determine whether there was a good cause for the recipient’s violation, and some have a
“conciliation” procedure to resolve disputes about participation in a required activity.
First Violation. Table 1 summarizes state TANF work sanctions for a first
violation, as outlined in their TANF plans and regulations. Until compliance, or for a
minimum penalty period, families in 19 jurisdictions lose 100% of TANF benefits for a first
work violation (this count includes two states that end benefits for quitting a job). Most
of the other states reduce benefits.
Repeat Violations. If a penalized family comes into compliance with work rules
but later commits another violation, the sanction is increased in size and/or duration. For
a repeat violation, some 18 jurisdictions increase the penalty from a partial benefit cut to
a 100% benefit cut for a minimum period.
Full Benefit Penalty. Altogether, counting both first and repeat violations, 38
jurisdictions, under some circumstances, cut families off the rolls for a period of time:
Alabama, Arizona, Colorado (at county option), Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia,
Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina (at
county option), North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin (for no work),
Wyoming, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.
Lifetime Ineligibility. Ultimately, seven of the 38 jurisdictions above end benefits
for the family permanently. These states are Georgia (upon a second [or subsequent]
material violation), Delaware, Guam, Idaho, and Pennsylvania (upon a third violation);
Mississippi (upon a fourth violation), and Nevada (if fail to comply after third penalty).
Interaction with Food Stamps. The 1996 welfare law provides for
reinforcement of TANF sanctions by food stamps. Under the law, states may reduce food
stamp benefits by up to 25% for households whose TANF benefits are reduced because
of noncompliance with program rules, and states are forbidden to increase food stamps to
offset some of the cash penalty. Further, those disqualified for noncompliance with TANF
rules may also be disqualified for food stamps and Medicaid. A dozen states reinforce
TANF penalties by also reducing food stamp benefits.2 According to TANF state plans,
Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio (after a third work violation) and the Virgin Islands end
Medicaid benefits for an adult who does not comply with TANF work rules.
Data on Use of Sanctions. The third annual TANF report provided the first
nationwide data concerning use of sanctions. These data are for case closures because of
any sanction, including those not related to work. It said that sanctions accounted for
156,000 case closures in FY1999 (6.2% of all closings). Sanctions accounted for more
than 20% of closures in six jurisdictions: Florida, 32%; Guam, 32%, Idaho, 24%; Iowa,
38%; Mississippi, 23%, and Missouri, 27%. On the other hand, 10 jurisdictions imposed
U.S. General Accounting Office. Welfare Reform, State Sanction Policies and Number of
Families Affected, March 2000. (GAO/HEHS-00-44). p. 50.
no case closures as penalties: District of Columbia, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota,
North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virgin Islands, and Wisconsin.
A General Accounting Office (GAO) summary of studies about sanctions reported
that in 10 states an average of about one-third of sanctioned adults came into compliance
after benefits were cut or ended, in five states from 17% to 51% of sanctioned families
remained in sanction status, and 15% to 35% left TANF “voluntarily.”3 The Office of
Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has
recommended that the Administration for Children and Families encourage states to issue
comprehensive and readily understandable sanction notices, including information on how
to cure the sanction.4
Sanction rate data may not provide a complete picture of a state’s sanction policy,
and it is difficult to make comparisons across states. For example, in states with more
severe penalties (i.e., a lifetime ban), a non-compliant family may be encouraged to close
its case rather than face sanctioning. Moreover, some states sanction only as a very last
resort, alternatively keeping cases open through a multi-stage process.
Ibid, p. 35.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Office of Inspector General. Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families, Educating Clients about Sanctions. October 1999. (OEI-09-9800291).
Table 1. Sanctions for First Work Violations
100% Benefit cuta
Alaska (job refusal
Delaware (job quit)
Michigan (1st 2 months
Pennsylvania (after 24
months of assistance)
Pennsylvania (1st 24
months of assistance)
Partial cut in grantc
Michigan (after 2 months
of assistance), 25%
New Mexico, 25%
North Carolina, 25%
West Virginia, 33%
Flat dollar cut
Texas, $78 ($125 if
Utah, $100 (parent’s
per missed hour)
Source: Table prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on the basis of TANF state plans, laws, and regulations.
Most of these jurisdictions resume payment of benefits upon compliance, but eight specify a minimum penalty period: Guam, 3 months; Mississippi,
2 months; Idaho, Nebraska, Ohio and Virginia, 1 month; Rhode Island and South Carolina, 30 days. Also, Idaho and Kansas specify that they
disqualify TANF applicants who have voluntarily quit a job (Idaho for 90 days).
Some of these states express the penalty as a “pro-rata” share of the family benefit. Most of these states lift the sanction upon compliance, but some
apply the penalty for minimum periods ranging from 1 to 3 months. If loss of the adult share of the benefit does not bring compliance within
a specified time, New Hampshire, New Jersey and North Dakota increase the sanction to a 100% benefit cut.
Most of these states impose the penalty for at least 1 to 3 months, and some increase the penalty to a 100% benefit cut for continued noncompliance.
After 24 months of benefits, penalty is increased to exceed the parent’s portion of the grant.
If greater, per capita share of benefit.