Sanctioning the Poor: A Structural and Individual Analysis

Date of Award

August 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Madonna Harrington Meyer


Poverty, Sanctions, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


How do welfare sanctions shape the lives of the poor, particularly during tough times? To investigate the impact of welfare sanctions on the lives of the poor, this study examines the role Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) played during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In particular, this study examines how sanction policies, the primary tools of poverty governance under TANF, were enforced during a time of national economic crisis. Given the recent recession, what factors shape the distribution of sanctions, and how do women respond to sanctions? To answer this question, I conduct secondary analysis of federal administrative data to show how unemployment, politics, policy choice, and race have shaped the distribution of welfare sanctions at the state and individual levels. Then I provide primary analysis of 20 interviews with women who have been sanctioned to identify barriers to compliance and responses to being sanctioned. Findings show that in general, as state-level unemployment rates increase, sanction rates decrease. However, during the Great Recession, sanction rates increased as unemployment increased. Contrary to expectation, states with Democrats in control of the House, Senate, and Governor’s office show an increase in sanction rates. However, sanction rates decreased in states under full democratic control during the Recession. States with stricter policy environments show greater rates of sanctions as predicted. At the individual level, black and Hispanic women face greater odds of sanctions. Women experience a range of individual-, community-, and agency-level barriers that make compliance with welfare rules difficult. Agency level barriers, such as long wait times and stigma, are most common. Finally, sanctioned clients struggle. My interviews suggest that they struggle most with housing, everyday necessities, and utilities. To make ends meet while sanctioned, clients rely on combinations of social programs, family, support from children’s fathers, and individual strategies. Contrary to past research, women in this study rarely relied on work-based strategies due to significant barriers to employment. Survival strategies vary by hardship domains. Domain specific hardships were significantly mediated by social programs such as Section 8, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicaid. This study shows the prominence of sanctions in TANF implementation, the pitfalls of a work-based welfare system, and the role of neoliberal paternalism in shaping individual responses to welfare sanctions.


SURFACE provides description only. Full text may be available to ProQuest subscribers. Please ask your Librarian for assistance.

This document is currently not available here.