Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Public Assistance, Monetary Sanctions, and Financial Double-Dealing in America


Participants that receive public assistance have a significantly lower probability of making payments on their LFOs than participants and families where there is no risk of financial double-dealing.

Public assistance helps over 20 percent of the U.S. population mitigate the effects of poverty. In 2017, state and local governments spent $673 billion on public assistance programs. Many people who are assessed monetary sanctions are also recipients of public assistance. This has led states to engage in financial double-dealing (FDD)– economic entanglements that redistribute welfare resources from individuals to the criminal legal system. This article analyzes survey data collected from individuals for whom monetary sanctions were imposed and data from cash and noncash assistance recipients from social safety net programs to investigate the relationship between public assistance and monetary sanctions. The authors conclude that individuals and families receiving public assistance are significantly less likely to pay their monetary sanctions than people not receiving public assistance, thus, those at the highest risk of FDD are at the highest risk of being penalized for failing to pay legal financial obligations (LFOs).

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Key Findings:

  • 43 percent of Americans receive public assistance, whereas nearly 60 percent of survey participants receive public assistance.
  • 25 percent of the participants were assessed over $10,000 in monetary sanctions.
  • 70 percent of participants made payments towards their monetary sanctions, paying an average of $4,000. 
  • The odds of having criminal justice debt are 51 percent higher for people who receive public assistance than those not enrolled in a safety net program. 
  • Families with the highest risk of FDD have a lower probability of making payments on their LFOs than families where there is no risk of FDD.
Bryan L. Sykes, Meghan Ballard, Andrea Giuffre, Rebecca Goodsell, Daniela Kaiser, Vicente Celestino Mata, and Justin Sola
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences