THE PASSAGE BY CONGRESS OF THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND WORK Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996 signaled the triumph of individual over collective responsibility for the nation s poorest families. In supporting welfare reform, a coalition of liberal and conservative advocates for abolishing the long-standing entitlement program for the poor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, capitalized on and fostered racist and sexist stereotypes of black and brown "welfare queens" living off of the hard work of the white working and middle classes. Moreover, as O'Connor (2001) argues, the writing of prominent social scientists, both liberal and conservative (Ellwood, 1988; Murray, 1984), legitimized PRWORA's emphasis on individual behavioral change, rather than poverty alleviation, as the solution to welfare dependency that was bred, in their view, by decades of safety-net entitlements. After passage of PRWORA, the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program was established in 1997 to implement welfare reform. Under TANF, work requirements, lifetime limits on the receipt of aid, and punishments for noncompliance, along with short-term childcare, transportation assistance, and services to overcome personal barriers to work, became the tools to instill the ethic of individual responsibility needed to leave welfare and become self-sufficient.
Sanctions are a centerpiece of PRWORA's tough-love approach to welfare dependency. In Los Angeles County, the love component consists of motivational messages about raising self-esteem to get off of aid and the provision of services to make it happen. The tough component is about sanctions--financial penalties for not complying with welfare-to-work requirements--the ultimate means of reducing welfare rolls (Horton and Shaw, 2002). (1) Although advocates for welfare reform cite the importance of PRWORA's combination of rewards and punishments in achieving welfare reform's widely touted reductions in the welfare rolls (Mead, 1997), sanction rates remain high across the country. (2) Thus, despite the price that sanctioned families pay, there is reason to believe that financial penalties, as a means of eliciting compliance, are not working as well as the architects of welfare reform intended (Caroll and Renwick, 2002; Hasenfeld and Weaver, 1996; Hasenfeld et al., 2002; Lee et al., 2004).
Why do some parents take sanctions rather than comply with welfare-to-work requirements? In seeking answers to this question, researchers have largely focused on personal barriers to compliance, showing that sanctioned parents are more likely to be African American, have significantly higher rates of material hardship, such as poor health, less education, fewer job skills and less work experience, and are also at higher risk for problems such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, hunger, and homelessness (Cherlin et al., 2002; Kalil et al., 2002; Pavetti et al., 2003, 2004; Reichman et al., 2005). Others cite local implementation and enforcement practices, as well as parents' lack of knowledge about participation requirements, as the primary sources of sanctions (Handler and Hasenfeld, 2007; Pavetti and Bloom, 2001). Critics, however, argue that such "barriers research" comes from a "poverty knowledge industry" made up of large private research organizations that are often contracted by welfare agencies to conduct evaluation research, which tacitly accept welfare reform's dependency framework. They do so by attributing noncompliance with program requirements to individual liabilities or personal circumstances (Marchevsky and Theoharis, 2006; O'Connor, 2001), rather than to the social conditions that underlie poverty. From a barriers perspective, more knowledge about personal obstacles may lead to measures for achieving higher rates of compliance and, in the long run, to further reductions in the numbers of parents on welfare (Riccio et al., 1996).
In this article, we challenge the limitations of the barriers thesis to argue that although parents have personal hardships such as health and childcare needs that make compliance difficult, the barriers thesis individualizes these difficulties in a way that puts the blame on the parents rather than on their poverty situations. …