State Policy Documentation Project



Sanctions for Noncompliance with Work Activities

Under TANF, states must require recipients to participate in work activities and must impose financial penalties on families that refuse, without good cause, to do so.  This section addresses the sanctions that states impose on recipients who do not comply with the state’s work activity requirements. States are also required to impose sanctions if an individual fails to cooperate without good cause with child support enforcement requirements.  In addition, other provisions of the law authorize, but do not require states to impose TANF sanctions on an individual who refuses without good cause to comply with an individual responsibility plan that may set forth a range of actions that an individual must take, such as immunization of children or school attendance.  This section will focus only on work-related sanctions.

 Policy Background

 Under the federal law, states must reduce TANF benefits pro-rata, or impose partial sanctions for recipients who do not comply with the state’s work requirements, or face a fiscal penalty.  The sanction must be imposed for any period during the month in which the recipient does not comply.  However, states have considerable flexibility to design the details of their sanction policies.  They can choose to impose larger sanctions, including termination of assistance to the family, and they can extend the duration the sanction will be imposed beyond the minimum the law establishes.  States can also provide exemptions from sanctions for families that are found to have good cause for not complying, and can define what constitutes good cause.  The only federally mandated good cause requirement is that single custodial parents must not be sanctioned for noncompliance if child care for a child under age six is not available.

 Summary of Sanction Policies

 Sanction Penalties:  Partial sanctions

Partial sanctions result in a grant reduction by a percentage of the total grant or a flat amount.   Thirty-six states impose partial sanctions for initial instances of noncompliance for some or all groups of families. In 15 of these states, partial sanctions are imposed for any instance of noncompliance.  In the remaining states, a partial sanction is imposed initially, but after further noncompliance the sanction increases and the entire family is terminated from assistance.  In four states, sanction penalties differ for different subgroups of families.  For example, in Rhode Island, the amount of the partial sanction differs for different groups of families, and in Pennsylvania, some families are terminated from assistance for noncompliance while others are subject to a partial sanction for noncompliance. 

 The amount that the sanction reduces the grant varies from state to state.  In 17 of the 36 states that impose partial sanctions at some point, the adult portion of the grant is removed and reduced benefits continue for the children for the duration of the sanction.  In another 17 states, the grant is reduced by a percentage, usually 25 to 50 percent.  The amount of the reduction generally increases over time or with further instances of noncompliance.  Two states reduce the grant by a flat amount of $50 or $100.

 Sanction Penalties: Full-Family Sanctions

A full-family sanction terminates cash assistance to the entire family.  Thirty-six states impose full-family sanctions at some point during the sanction process.  In half of these states (18) full-family sanctions are imposed immediately for any instance of noncompliance for some or all groups of families.  The remaining states have initial partial sanctions which can escalate to full-family sanctions either as a result of continued noncompliance, or for further instances of noncompliance.   In all but two of these states, a full-family sanction can be imposed on families that do not comply for a continued period after the first instance of noncompliance.  Generally, the duration of noncompliance that triggers escalation to a full-family sanction can be between one and six months (see chart entitled “Timing of Full-family Sanctions).


The length of time that a sanction lasts varies widely between states.  In nine states, sanctions are always lifted once the individual complies with the work activity.   In 39 states, sanctions are imposed for a set time period, which can go beyond the time the individual complies.  The set time period in these states usually ranges from one to six months, although four states impose 12-month sanctions and one state has a 36-month sanction.  In seven states, assistance can be terminated permanently for noncompliance.

            In most states, sanction durations increase after each instance of noncompliance or with continued noncompliance. 18 states impose sanctions until compliance for a first instance of noncompliance, but lengthen the duration beyond compliance for subsequent sanctions.  In the seven states with permanent termination, the permanent sanction usually occurs after a third instance of noncompliance.  However, in two states, a family can be permanently terminated from assistance after one instance of noncompliance if the individual does not come into compliance within three or four months after the first instance. 

 Curing Sanctions

In order for a sanction to be lifted and full benefits to be restored, most states require recipients to demonstrate compliance by taking certain actions which “cure” the sanction.  Usually recipients are required to participate in the activity that they did not comply with prior to the sanction, or to renegotiate their individual plan and participate in a new activity.  Most states (25) require recipients to participate in the activity for a specific length of time in order to demonstrate compliance. This length varies from three days to one month, but is frequently two weeks.  In 12 states, compliance can be demonstrated by simply beginning to participate in the activity and in 11 states, indicating a willingness to comply is sufficient to cure the sanction.  In three states, counties or local district offices can determine what is required to cure a sanction.

 In some states demonstrating compliance becomes more difficult for subsequent sanctions after the first.  Usually, the length of time the individual is required to comply in order to cure the sanction increases.   In some states, the family’s case is formally closed when a sanction is imposed, and the family must reapply in order to again receive benefits after the sanction.  In the states with permanent termination, no cure is possible.  

Good Cause for Noncompliance

In almost every state, sanction policies contain a list of  “good cause” reasons for noncompliance.  If families cannot comply with program rules because they have good cause, they can usually avoid imposition of a sanction.  The federal law prohibits states from sanctioning single custodial parents who do not comply because they cannot find child care for their young children (under age six).[1]  Beyond this requirement, states can define what constitutes good cause for noncompliance.  Most states have a set of other good cause reasons which may allow an individual to avoid a sanction if they are unable to comply as a result of one of those reasons.  Aside from the child care protection, the most common reason that states consider to be good cause for noncompliance is if the individual has a temporary disability or illness (38 states).  Other common good cause reasons include caring for an ill/disabled household member (37 states), family emergencies (37 states), lack of available transportation (36 states), and if the individual is incapacitated or disabled (32 states).[2]  In at least one state, each county determines its own rules concerning what constitutes good cause.


Under AFDC, all states were required to implement conciliation procedures through which individuals could resolve disputes relating to participation in the JOBS program.  After a conciliation period during which the individual could contest the noncompliance claim, a notice of adverse action could be sent indicating the individual did not comply and would soon be sanctioned.  With the implementation of TANF, at least 18 states eliminated the conciliation process they had under AFDC.  Most of these states replaced their conciliation procedures with a different process to resolve sanction disputes, usually one that offers less procedural protections than the formal conciliation process. Some states that kept conciliation under TANF, limited it to certain types of noncompliance or to a first instance of noncompliance only.   Only three states do not have any type of process to resolve sanction disputes before they are imposed.

[1]See “The TANF Child Care Protection: Families Covered” in the Child Care Assistance section for more information on state policies in regard to this federal provision.

[2]Generally, a basis for a work exemption is also a basis for good cause for noncompliance.  In the SPDP survey, some states listed as good cause reasons the state’s work exemptions, plus some additional reasons associated with temporarily missing work or other work activities (such as a family emergency or court appearance).  Further information about work exemptions, including 50-state charts can be found in the work activities section.


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This page last updated September 02, 2023

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