Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Work Sanctions under Welfare Reform: Are They Helping Women Achieve Self-Sufficiency?

Academic journal article Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy

Work Sanctions under Welfare Reform: Are They Helping Women Achieve Self-Sufficiency?

Article excerpt

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 (1) radically reshaped the landscape of welfare for women. (2) The changes transformed a program designed to meet the material needs of poor women and their families into one primarily focused on preventing dependency through promoting work. PRWORA includes an array of behavioral-based reforms that mandate work and penalize its absence. One of the key tools for enforcing the work mandate is sanctions, which can include financial penalties. Women who do not comply with work rules can lose all or some of their cash assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid.

Whether sanctions help women achieve self-sufficiency in the labor market is a subject of scholarly debate. Central to this discussion is how sanctions are being used on the front-lines of welfare, and how recipients are responding to them. This article reports the findings of the author's empirical study of the sanctioning process in two regions in Texas: one primarily rural and the other urban/suburban. It examines how and when sanctions are imposed by local staff in welfare offices and what problems recipients encounter when they attempt to comply with the work rules and avoid sanctions. Using this and other empirical studies on sanctions, this article examines whether sanctions are helping poor women achieve self-sufficiency.

Part I of this article discusses the history of work rules in public assistance programs. Part II examines the use of sanctions in welfare-to-work programs, drawing extensively on the empirical literature describing the rates of sanction, the characteristics of sanctioned families, and whether sanctions induce hardship. Part III reports on the results of the study. Part IV evaluates whether sanctions are an appropriate tool for addressing the problem of poverty and welfare dependency among poor women and their families.


In the seventy years since the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program (3) was enacted, it has evolved from a program designed to keep mothers out of the workforce to a program requiring their participation. This shift mirrors today's greater acceptance of women's participation in the market economy. (4) But the amendments to ADC also reflect changing notions of who is deserving of government aid and what recipients must do to obtain it.

Passed during the upheaval of the Great Depression, ADC was one of many programs that signaled a new role for the federal government in funding and administering social welfare programs. Modeled on state Mothers' Pension Programs, it provided aid to children who had lost a parent due to death or physical or mental incapacity. The primary beneficiaries were white widows. (5) African-American women, the divorced and the never married were routinely denied benefits through state suitable home provisions that required officials to determine a home's fitness before aid was granted. (6) However, although white widows were deemed worthy of aid, their worth was measured as being less than that of every other needy group. In fact, ADC was the least generous of the programs enacted in response to the Great Depression. (7)

The New Deal also codified into law a gender distinction that disadvantaged women. A two-tiered system was created where paid workers, who were primarily men, received social insurance benefits, while poor women received means-tested welfare. Thus, while ADC exempted women from work, the lack of a connection to the labor market marked them as less worthy of receiving social welfare. As Bussierre describes it, "men were treated as rights-bearing citizens, ADC recipients as subjects to be molded into 'good' mothers." (8)

Starting in the 1960s, attempts were made to also mold these "good mothers" into good workers. Work requirements were introduced for the first time in 1967 by the enactment of the Work Incentive Program (WIN). …

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