Punished welfare recipients less likely to find jobs

The Associated Press
Wednesday February 14, 2001

WASHINGTON — Nearly two in three people who were pushed off welfare because they failed to follow the rules were not working after losing benefits, a three-city study finds.  

For those who left welfare on their own, it was the opposite: two out of three were at work. 

The study, released Tuesday by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, highlights the important role that sanctions, or punishments, have played in newly aggressive welfare programs.  

Sanctions got little attention during the national debate over welfare in 1995 and 1996, but they have been responsible for driving large numbers of people off state caseloads – in some states, they account for up to half of all those who have left. 

In this study, about 17 percent of those who lost benefits were being punished for failing to follow the rules.  

In most cases, participants failed to adhere to procedural requirements – missing a meeting with a caseworker or failing to file the right paperwork, the study found. Few were punished for refusing to work. 

Of those who were sanctioned, 35 percent reported getting a job. Among those who left welfare for some other reason, 67 percent were working. 

“Families that have had their benefits reduced or ended for not following the rules are among the most vulnerable in our study,” said Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins, the lead researcher. In 1999, researchers interviewed about 2,500 families with children in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio, Texas.  

Of them, about 1,300 caregivers were receiving or had received cash welfare over the past two years. 

The study found that sanctions tended to affect families that were more vulnerable than other welfare families.  

They were poorer, more likely to say they were hungry, less likely to have a telephone or a car, more likely to use drugs and alcohol and more likely to live in a dangerous neighborhood. 

These findings are consistent with other studies, said LaDonna Pavetti, an authority on welfare sanctions at Mathematica Policy Research. 

She said people who are sanctioned are more likely to have a host of challenges that make it harder for them to work, including low literacy, mental health problems and drug or alcohol addictions. 

“These issues create a story of people who appear not able to comply or don’t understand what they are being asked to do,” she said.  

“We need to think of them as a vulnerable group more than as a group who says, ‘I’m not doing this’ and actively choosing not to comply (with welfare rules).”