Momentary Help For Needy Households: Sanctioning And Baby Help Compliance Amongst Black Households In Illinois

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides cash payments to help low-income families in the US gain stability and achieve self-sufficiency.1 Signed into law under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,2 TANF replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) entitlement program, giving states greater flexibility over how aid dollars could be spent,3 as long as funds served to advance one of the program’s stated goals.4

With the transition from the AFDC’s welfare entitlement program to TANF’s welfare-to-work structure came sanctions, or punitive measures implemented when a TANF customer does not comply with a particular requirement, including child support enforcement. States have autonomy to decide whether sanctions are full or partial and whether they are at the family or individual level. Although sanctions are intended to serve as an accountability measure,5 sanctioning is not effective in improving customer outcomes.6,7 Sanctioned families have been found to have less earnings and lower employment rates, lower education levels, and greater challenges accessing transportation and child care.5 Although cash assistance has been linked to improved child health and academic achievement, research shows that sanctions to benefits can increase health risks (for example, through increased food insecurity, hospitalizations, and emergency department visits).8

Under the TANF block grant, states are able to develop independent sanctioning policies.9,10 In addition, caseworkers are able to exercise some discretion in whom they sanction and when.11,12 As a result, sanctions have been distributed inequitably among demographic groups. Across the country, states with larger shares of Black residents have implemented stricter, more punitive TANF policies than states with smaller shares of Black residents.13 Research has also found that Black women are always more likely to be sanctioned than White women, regardless of the racial composition of the county in which they live.14 When there are more Black residents in a county, however, there is a mitigating effect: Black women who live in counties with a higher proportion of Black residents are less likely to be sanctioned than those who live in counties with a smaller proportion of Black residents.13 Differences in state policy and employment status do not explain why Black women are more likely to face TANF loss than other demographics, which suggests that racialized factors are at play, perhaps both in local labor markets and in caseworkers’ discretionary choices.

Under federal law, if a TANF customer is not receiving child support from a noncustodial parent of their child or children, the noncustodial parent must be reported to the state for child support enforcement for the TANF customer to receive TANF. Regarding child support payments, the state can decide how much of the child support is kept by the state to offset the TANF amount and how much is “passed through” to the customer. At this time, only Colorado passes through 100 percent of the child support amount to the family.15 If a TANF customer does not want to report that noncustodial parent to the state, then the state can sanction the customer, with exceptions for survivors of domestic violence.

Compared with other states, Illinois spends the second-lowest percentage of its TANF funds on basic cash assistance for families.16 In addition, for each child support payment for families enrolled in TANF, the state keeps $100 for one child and $200 for two or more children.17

Although there is a wealth of research into whether TANF has met its goal of providing a pathway out of poverty for struggling families, there has been less investigation into how implementation of TANF may have differential impacts by race, geography, age, and other demographic traits.12,18–20 This article contributes to emerging research demonstrating that TANF policies create barriers to accessing and maintaining TANF benefits and that those barriers disproportionally affect families on the basis of their race.21–24

This study was part of a more extensive research project, led by the Social IMPACT Research Center at Heartland Alliance, in partnership with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and supported by the Illinois Department of Human Services. The project sought to explore the gap between TANF-eligible and TANF-enrolled families with young children in Illinois and to identify key barriers influencing application, enrollment, and maintenance of benefits. This article explores the barriers that families with young children experience in maintaining TANF, specifically through a racial equity lens.

Study Data And Methods

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework that guided this research was the Racial Classification Model, developed by Joe Soss, Richard Fording, and Sanford Schram, which frames how to understand the way in which race influences social policy choices.25 It is built on the premises that policy makers rely on “social classifications and group reputations” in designing and applying policy, that assumptions about racial groups can inform the theories of change employed in developing and executing policies, and that the importance of race in policy depends on the degree to which races are perceived as different.25


We used an approach known as community-engaged research, defined as “the process of working collaboratively with groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interests, or similar situations with respect to issues affecting their well-being.”26 The Social IMPACT Research Center at Heartland Alliance partnered with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to recruit five research advisory board members with deep community-driven advocacy experience who had received TANF. This board meaningfully informed the research design and data collection tools and collaborated in conducting qualitative interviews, analyzing the data, and developing products.


Researchers took a mixed-methods approach to the project design. Qualitative interviews with TANF customers informed the survey among TANF caseworkers and the TANF administrative data request and analysis. This article presents results from the administrative data and interviews.

Administrative Data

The Illinois Department of Human Services provided deidentified individual TANF recipient data for the period 2017–20 across numerous variables including demographics (race, ethnicity, sex, and geography) and sanction type. The department moved to a new system in 2017 and paused sanctions related to work and training requirements in 2020. Because of changes in TANF enrollment, sanctioning related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incomplete data for 2017 and 2020, only data from 2018 and 2019 were used. The department disaggregated the data into three universes: enrolled, denied, and canceled. Only families with at least one child younger than age five in 2018 or 2019 were included in the study.

All quantitative analyses were performed using the RStudio and R packages. There were approximately twenty-seven sanction codes, which researchers recoded into the following groups: bureaucracy (n=9): applicant was unable to meet or fulfill a required step during the redetermination phase, including documentation and meetings; child support noncompliance (n=7): failure of applicant to comply with child support mandates or cooperation to establish paternity; employment (n=6): applicant did not continue with employment mandate; and Responsibility and Services Plan (n=5): applicant was unable to fulfill the requirements of their Responsibility and Services Plan. See online appendix 1 for a full list of sanction codes.27

Univariate and bivariate analyses were conducted to explore sanctions by various demographic categories. A logistic regression was used to examine the odds of sanctioning for racial groups and geography. Sanctioning was the dependent variable; it was a dichotomous variable with a value equal to 1 if the participant was sanctioned at least once in the two-year period and 0 if the participant was never sanctioned in the two-year period. Race and geography were the independent variables. Race was a categorical variable that represented families’ racial composition: Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, multiracial, White, and unknown. Geography was a dichotomous variable that represented whether families resided in Cook County or outside Cook County. Researchers included these variables because of evidence from prior studies demonstrating their association with TANF sanctioning.10,28,29 Before running the model, we tested the following assumptions of a logistic regression: Outcome variable is binary, observations are mutually exclusive, and sample size is sufficient. Researchers assessed multicollinearity by computing the variance inflation factor and found no evidence of a collinearity concern.

After assessing which demographic characteristics were associated with increased likelihood of being sanctioned, researchers looked at demographic differences in the distribution of sanction codes. A row-wise Fisher’s test was used to examine whether there was a difference in certain sanction codes along racial lines.

Qualitative Data

The purpose of the qualitative data was to explore the barriers that families with young children experience when accessing and maintaining TANF in Illinois. Nineteen semistructured, in-depth interviews were conducted, which allowed researchers to reach a point of saturation on barriers experienced. Across all TANF customer interviews that reported race, 63 percent of participants identified as Black, and 25 percent identified as White. Researchers conducted ten individual interviews with TANF customers in Cook County, as well as interviews with six TANF customers and three with service providers across the state of Illinois. One staff interview was held with two staff members at once, and two of the customer interviews were held with two customers; each was a result of travel challenges, and in both cases the participants preferred to interview together rather than individually. All interviewees were older than age eighteen, had at least one child younger than age five in either 2018 or 2019, and had applied for TANF in the past three years. Recruitment efforts focused on existing Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and Heartland Alliance partners, coalitions affiliated with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and Illinois Department of Human Services–funded service providers.

Interviews were conducted either in person or virtually (via the Zoom video conference platform). All interviews lasted around sixty minutes, and participants were compensated $30. Informed consent was obtained before each interview, in which interviewees also consented to sharing quotes in publications and provided a chosen pseudonym. Audio files were transcribed and edited in Temi for meaning and clarity. Transcripts were then imported into Dedoose software, and several transcripts were inductively coded. A codebook was collaboratively developed from the initial codes by the research team and the research advisory board. The team then used the codebook to code the rest of the interviews, using a team-based approach in which secondary coders checked 10 percent of all primary coded transcripts. Codes were placed in categorical groups identified during a collaborative mind mapping session.30,31 Categorical groups were organized into a visual to illustrate primary (root) and secondary (branches) barriers to accessing TANF (see appendix 3).27


This work was subject to several limitations, as described below.

Administrative Data:

Researchers were interested in seeing the probability of being sanctioned based on demographic characteristics in 2018 and 2019 for families in the enrolled universe. Families categorized as “movers” and “unknown” were excluded from the analysis because researchers wanted to see whether geography increased or decreased families’ chances of being sanctioned. “Movers” were those who moved from one county to another (often between Cook County and outside Cook County), and “unknown” participants were those who did not list their county of residence. Also, only families with sanction reasons were included in the analysis: Approximately 41 percent of families in 2018 and 2019 did not have a sanction reason listed. These omissions may have biased our sample.

Qualitative Data:

Interviews in Cook County were conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have affected trust building. Other limitations included the need to rely heavily on relationships to recruit participants because of the pandemic; other ways of recruitment, such as flyers, for example, would be less effective in the context of the pandemic. For this reason, it is possible that the interviewees we recruited were more likely to be experiencing homelessness, given the missions of our respective organizations (Heartland Alliance and Chicago Coalition for the Homeless). However, given the income limit for TANF, most TANF customers are facing extreme poverty, so experiences of homelessness or housing instability are unlikely to be rare.

We would have liked to be able recruit a broader sample of participants across central and southern Illinois, but challenges with COVID-19 made recruitment more difficult outside of Cook County, so we relied on partner organizations who were willing to support recruiting multiple participants. Last, overall, the sample of nineteen interviews was not large; however, we hit on all the important themes, and they were applicable across geographic areas.

Study Results

Quantitative Findings

Sanctions were applied to a large portion of TANF recipients with young children in Illinois. As exhibit 1 shows, in 2018 a total of 5,129 families with young children, or 24 percent of the enrolled population, were sanctioned at least once. In 2019, 5,947 families, or 30 percent of the enrolled population, were sanctioned at least once. Black and multiracial families enrolled in TANF were more likely to be sanctioned compared with families of other races. We assessed demographic and geographic differences in sanctions for people enrolled in TANF and people who had their TANF benefits canceled. Regarding demographics, among enrolled families in 2018–19, 73 percent of Black families received at least one sanction, compared with 20 percent of White families. Also, 5 percent of non-Hispanic/Latino/a/x families received at least one sanction, versus 90 percent of the Hispanic/Latino/a/x families. Regarding geography, 63 percent and 61 percent of families outside of Cook County received at least one sanction in 2018 and 2019, respectively, compared with 37 percent and 39 percent of families in Cook County, in which 22.7 percent of residents identified as Black or African American versus 13.6 percent statewide.32 Because of data limitations, researchers were not able to disaggregate much of the county data by race.

Exhibit 1 Rates of sanctions and cancellations among Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in Illinois, by race, ethnicity, and geography, 2018–19

2018 2019
Enrolled Canceled Enrolled Canceled
Characteristics Total (N = 21,647) Sanctioned (n = 5,129) Total (n = 13,435) Sanctioned (n = 2,989) Total (N = 19,892) Sanctioned (n = 5,947) Total (n = 10,846) Sanctioned (n = 3,102)
 White 24% 20% 23% 21% 24% 20% 24% 20%
 Black 66 73 67 73 66 73 64 72
 American Indian/Alaska Native 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Asian 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0
 Multiracial 4 5 4 4 5 5 5 5
 Unknowna 5 2 5 1 4 2 6 2
 Non-Hispanic/Latino/a/x 86 90 86 91 86 90 84 90
 Hispanic/Latino/a/x 6 5 6 5 6 4 6 4
 Multiethnic 3 3 2 3 3 3 3 3
 Unknowna 5 2 5 2 5 2 7 3
 Cook County 47 37 44 36 45 39 43 37
 Non–Cook County 48 63 49 56 48 61 47 54
 Movers 5 0 6 6 5 0 6 7
 Unknowna 1 0 1 1 1 0 4 2

In 2018–19, Black families were 111 percent (p=0.000) more likely than White families to receive at least one sanction (holding geography constant), and families living in Cook County were 40 percent (p=0.000) less likely than families living outside of Cook County to be sanctioned (holding race constant) (exhibit 2).

Exhibit 2 Odds of receiving at least 1 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) sanction among Illinois TANF recipients, by race and geography, 2018–19

Variables Odds ratio 95% CI
 White Ref
 Black 2.11*** 1.99, 2.23
 American Indian/Alaska Native 1.20 0.69, 2.07
 Asian 0.49*** 0.35, 0.69
 Multiracial 1.57*** 1.41, 1.75
 Unknown 0.43 0.37, 0.50
 Cook County 0.60*** 0.58, 0.63
 Outside Cook County Ref

We also examined sanctions among families whose TANF benefits were canceled. In 2018 and 2019, 73 percent and 72 percent, respectively, of Black families whose TANF case was canceled received at least one sanction, compared with 21 percent and 20 percent of White families in the same years (exhibit 1). Among families whose TANF case was canceled, the vast majority of TANF families were sanctioned for reasons related to bureaucracy (2018: 43 percent; 2019: 37 percent) and child support noncompliance (2018: 39 percent; 2019: 47 percent) (exhibit 3). As shown in appendix 4,27 Black families whose TANF was canceled received more sanctions for child support noncompliance (2018: 42 percent, 2019: 50 percent) than White families (2018: 30 percent, 2019: 34 percent).

Exhibit 3 Types of sanctions among canceled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cases, Illinois, 2018 and 2019

Exhibit 3

SOURCE Illinois Department of Human Services, administrative TANF recipient data, 2018–19. aThere were no cases sanctioned for employment reasons.

Qualitative Findings

The qualitative data provided important context as to why a TANF customer might not comply with child support enforcement. Child support emerged as a key secondary barrier to accessing TANF (see all themes in appendix 1).27 A major challenge with child support compliance is among mothers with young children who are survivors of intimate partner violence. The Illinois Department of Human Services has “good cause” waivers for which the requirement to identify the noncustodial parent is waived, including for situations in which the applicant experienced intimate partner violence.33 However, waivers often require paperwork or other evidence that customers either do not have or cannot prove using legally sufficient documentation. As one participant stated: “You know, I left [him] for a reason. If things were good, I would have stayed…. I took it for too long and I had to go, you know, I had to get out!… And I know with this child support order, [when the Illinois Department of Human Services] office finds him, he’s going to know where I’m at! That puts me in a compromising situation” (Tanisha [pseudonym], self-identified as Black, Cook County).

Another interviewee stated that she was living at a domestic violence shelter, and although she had applied for TANF and was able to obtain a waiver, she said that most other women in her shelter would not apply for fear of retaliation.

In addition, participants said that the child support compliance policy was not designed with nonmarried parents in mind. One interviewee, in a relationship with her partner, described this tension: “Now I don’t think that I mentioned…my child’s father because we were together. And I was like, why would he have to be put on child support if we’re together? That makes no sense” (Diamond [pseudonym], self-identified as Black, Cook County).

Some interviewees had parenting relationships with their child’s father and knowingly avoided interacting with the child support system because they knew that it would negatively affect the father, who was often the responsible party for child support among our interviewees. As one stated: “I guess part of getting TANF is going through the child support system, I guess to make the father pay every month, but as I was explaining to them…at the time he was couch surfing [unstably housed], he wasn’t in a stable condition to even help partake in my son’s financial part of life at the moment, which was fine for me because I know what that was like…. And they were just like, yeah, it’s mandatory. You have to do it. You don’t have a choice, you do this or you don’t get TANF” (Daja [pseudonym], self-identified as Black, Cook County).

Later, this interviewee shared that although her child’s father was unable to financially support the family at the moment, he was providing child care while she was searching for work, and thus, enforcing child support would compromise her source of child care.

Overall, experiences with child support enforcement were varied among interviewees, but for women who did not want to pursue child support, it either prevented them from receiving critical cash assistance or reduced the total amount they and their children received.


Child support compliance is a major barrier for many families receiving TANF.

In this study we found that during 2018–19, Black families enrolled in TANF were more likely than families of other races to be sanctioned, and specifically to be sanctioned for child support noncompliance reasons. Child support compliance is a major barrier for many families receiving TANF. Not only can compliance be unsafe or uncomfortable for many TANF customers, but because the pass-through amount goes to the state rather than the customer, there is also little benefit to TANF customers who do want to pursue child support. Tying basic cash assistance to child support is steeped in racism and stereotypes around Black men not supporting families.34 The assumption is that Black fathers are absent and that child support is one way to get them involved in their child’s life. Some studies have shown that there are no differences in involvement among Black and White noncustodial fathers and that Black fathers may be more likely to have contact with their children than White fathers.35,36 Forcing families who may have other arrangements, such as fathers providing child care, to pay child support also directly contradicts the TANF goal of supporting two-parent households. Because of oversanctioning and child support pass-through, many Black families in Illinois are not receiving the full cash amount to which they are entitled.

Families seeking TANF are already in need; reducing cash assistance pushes families further into poverty, with one of the consequences being lasting negative impacts on children’s health and development. For example, one study found that a child experiencing poverty in the first six years of life is “more than twice as likely to report poor overall health or high levels of psychological distress.”37 Economic hardship also results in parental stress, which in turn may lead to “lower-quality parenting” that harms a child’s cognitive and socioemotional development.37 Negative health outcomes of child poverty can continue into adulthood.

Policy makers should move away from restrictive, punitive cash assistance systems and toward a system intended to help families thrive.

We propose several recommendations for reforming TANF policy that are based on our analysis. Our overarching recommendation is that policy makers should move away from restrictive, punitive cash assistance systems and toward a system intended to help families thrive. The aim of a family-centered cash assistance system would be economic security, not other value-based outcomes, thereby removing the need for child support compliance or work requirements.

The use of child support cooperation requirements creates an additional burden for both the families and the administrating agency. Shifting away from this requirement would provide an opportunity for child support administration to stand as a useful tool that benefits families. The use of welfare cost recovery through child support cooperation to drive profit for public benefits administration is an outdated and institutionally racist operating model that takes away money from families that are already struggling to achieve economic stability.

We recommend that the Department of Health and Human Services bar states from using sanctions that either reduce benefit amounts or eliminate cash assistance altogether. Overhauling the cash assistance system in Illinois would require a federal change. However, as discussed in the introduction, states have latitude in how they implement TANF or an alternative cash assistance program, including policies related to child support enforcement.

Therefore, a key recommendation for the State of Illinois is that TANF families should receive the full amount of child support paid by the noncustodial parent. National research has found that on average, child support contributed to 40 percent of family income among poor custodial families receiving child support in 2007. Without child support, child poverty would have increased by 4.4 percent in 2008.38 Illinois collects, on average, $30–$50 million annually in child support on behalf of families receiving TANF.39 Because of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,2 the state is required to send a third of the funds back to the federal government and is permitted to retain the remainder. Families hesitant to engage with child support enforcement are faced with the choice of forgoing TANF and navigating survival without the needed funds or of receiving a fraction of the funds collected (14 cents on the dollar)39 and dealing with possible strain on the relationship with the other parent. In some families, the noncustodial parent may offer nonfinancial support such as child care when the custodial parent is working or at school. Other families may also be two-parent households, so putting the other parent on child support does not make sense. If a family qualifies for TANF and noncustodial parents are required to pay child support, 100 percent of funds should go toward supporting their children.

Race influences which families in Illinois are more likely to be sanctioned, as well as the sanctions that a family is more likely to receive.

Race influences which families in Illinois are more likely to be sanctioned, as well as the sanctions that a family is more likely to receive. Child support compliance is a particular barrier for Black families, leading to sanctioning. If the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act’s intention was to ensure that noncustodial parents, often fathers, take responsibility and provide financially for their children, the child support mandate stands in opposition to this intended goal. Not only are the funds the state has collected not going toward supporting families, but also the child support mandate often causes a rift because the noncustodial parent, who may have been informally helping support the household, is now less likely to engage with their children because they are unable to meet the child support obligation. In the case of noncustodial parents who are incarcerated, their child support obligation continues to accumulate while they are incarcerated, and they return home with large arrearages and few employment prospects, leading to higher rates of recidivism.40

The unequal treatment of Black mothers in this system is particularly concerning and suggests that the allocation of child support–related sanctions is disproportionately negatively affecting Black families. It is an unending cycle for the members of the family, without a gateway out of poverty. Custodial parents should have the autonomy to determine whether child support collection and enforcement is in the best interest of their children and families. Cash assistance can be a major lifeline for many families living in extreme poverty, and it should not be made so difficult to receive or maintain.


This article contains content that also appears in the Heartland Alliance’s larger final report, Resigned to the Process: Barriers to Accessing and Maintaining TANF among Low-Income Families with Young Children in Illinois, released in October 2022. Over the course of the project, the research team lost two researchers who were part of their research advisory board, Leeanna Majors and Edrika Fulford. Their contributions as researchers and advocates to this project cannot be overstated. This report is dedicated to these two women, whose passion, commitment, and dedication to equitable research that seeks achieve basic human rights for their community, including housing, financial stability, and health care, will be carried forward in the future. The authors also acknowledge Betty Evans, who played a critical role in the project design and research questions but whose health prevented her from continuing with the research project. The authors also acknowledge Keith Freeman, who led recruitment efforts for the individual interviews in Cook County and who also passed away during the project. He is deeply missed. This work was highly collaborative and involved several partners. The authors thank the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and particularly Wayne Richard for his partnership in supporting the research advisory board. The authors thank the Illinois Department of Human Services, which was a key partner in rolling out this project. The Illinois Department of Human Services informed the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families caseworker survey design and facilitated implementation. It also facilitated administrative data sharing and was gracious in answering the authors’ many questions about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families processes and data coding. The authors thank key partners in Central and Southern Illinois who supported recruitment of interviewees. Those organizations include the Central East Alcoholism and Drug Council; Dove, Inc.; Dream Peoria; and Caritas Family Solutions. This research was supported by Grant No. 77456 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of its Equity-Focused Policy Research Initiative: Building Evidence on Income Supports for Low-Income Families with Young Children. This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon this work, for commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited. See


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