Deciding to discipline: Race, choice, and punishment at the frontlines of welfare reform

Sanford F. Schram, Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, Linda Houser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

236 Scopus citations


Welfare sanctions are financial penalties applied to individuals who fail to comply with welfare program rules. Their widespread use reflects a turn toward disciplinary approaches to poverty management. In this article, we investigate how implicit racial biases and discrediting social markers interact to shape officials' decisions to impose sanctions. We present experimental evidence based on hypothetical vignettes that case managers are more likely to recommend sanctions for Latina and black clients - but not white clients - when discrediting markers are present. We triangulate these findings with analyses of state administrative data. Our results for Latinas are mixed, but we find consistent evidence that the probability ofa sanction rises significantly when a discrediting marker (i.e., a prior sanction for noncompliance) is attached to a black rather than a white welfare client. Overall, our study clarifies how racial minorities especially African Americans, are more likely to be punished for deviant behavior in the new world of disciplinary welfare provision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)398-422
Number of pages25
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2009


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