Last September, a month after Beatrice Steljes had to quit her job as a gas station cashier due to illness, she received a form letter from Florida's state welfare authority.
The letter informed Ms. Steljes, a single mother, that she was no longer eligible for cash assistance because she "did not meet work requirements" and would lose her $241 monthly benefits in two weeks.
Today, Steljes is homeless, unemployed, and still fighting what she and legal advocates say was a flawed decision to drop her from the welfare rolls. She has retained some benefits pending a hearing.
Across the country, state and local officials are hailing the success of welfare-to-work programs in sharply reducing the numbers of people on public assistance. Yet tens of thousands of Americans such as Steljes are being cut from the rolls not because they found jobs, but because of tough new state sanctions adopted nationwide since the passage of the 1996 federal welfare reform act.
Nationally, from October 1996 to June 1997, 38 percent of the recipients who left welfare did so because of state sanctions for noncompliance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
"What is going on is a lot more sanction policy - trying to reform people's behavior by withholding [all or] part of the grant," says Wendell Primus, director of
income security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "In some cases that is helping, but in many cases it is hurting."
The sanctions offer an early, mixed picture on the consequences of welfare reform. Imposed for noncompliance with welfare rules - ranging from missing a training session to failing to show up for an interview - the punitive measures are cutting off benefits long before they are due to expire under time limits.
The widespread proliferation of state sanctions in recent years has accelerated since President Clinton signed sweeping welfare reform legislation in the summer of 1996. The new law grants states broad flexibility in penalizing recipients who fail to engage in work activities.
"States are ... making greater use of their sanction authority to enforce TANF [welfare act] work requirements," HHS Assistant Secretary Olivia Golden told a Senate hearing last month. "Sanction rates of 25 to 30 percent - or higher - are now not unusual," she said.
In Florida, for example, sanctions accounted for more than 25 percent of the families whose assistance was terminated from July to December 1997. In Tennessee, at least 35 percent of the 34,000 families who lost benefits since September 1996 did so for failing to comply with regulations, compared with 30 percent who earned excess income.
State sanctioning is now more severe, quick, and long-lasting than in the past, when partial denial of a family's benefits was the rule. Today, 36 states have increased their most severe sanction to a full termination of benefits; in 14 states, including Florida, a full cutoff is now the first penalty. In seven states, the harshest sanction is a life-long termination of benefits.
Sanctions can be useful, both in goading unmotivated people into work, and, in some cases, detecting welfare fraud by people who already have jobs, say welfare experts and officials.
NEVERTHELESS, many experts are alarmed at the high rate of sanctioning, warning that under the new welfare regime states receiving fixed federal block grants have a far greater financial incentive for using sanctions to cut welfare rolls. Meanwhile, the new law grants families fewer legal protections when assistance is denied, according to Mark Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington think tank.
"It is often cheaper and easier to impose a sanction than to provide assistance in helping families address barriers to employment," says Mr. Greenberg. Welfare recipients have faced sanctions despite unresolved transportation, child-care, and health problems, say advocates for the poor.
Moreover, the potential is great for sanctions to result from mistakes and misunderstandings between overburdened caseworkers and harried welfare recipients, according to studies and anecdotal evidence from individual states.
In Florida, for example, Steljes is still uncertain why she was sanctioned for failing to "meet work requirements." She says she showed welfare officials her medical excuse for not working and for missing some job-orientation sessions. Appealing the sanctions is problematic, both because the state offers no detailed reason for its sanctions and because it has assigned two separate agencies to oversee benefits and work compliance.
"The notice doesn't tell you what you did wrong and how to fix it," says Erin Leveton, a staff attorney at Florida Legal Rural Services Inc., which is representing Steljes. "It really takes away your right for a meaningful appeal." If Steljes loses her appeal, she will have no source of support for herself and her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha. Recently, the two moved into the two-bedroom public housing unit of another daughter, Maria, who works part-time to support a 15-month-old baby.
"I think sanctioning is just a foreshadowing of what is going to come in October," Ms. Leveton says, when state figures show that as many as 7,000 Florida families will reach a time limit on welfare benefits. "I see disaster for the poor people in Florida."