Abstract: Dual Debtors: Navigating Child Support Arrears and Criminal Justice Debt (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Dual Debtors: Navigating Child Support Arrears and Criminal Justice Debt

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR G, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kimberly Spencer Suarez, MSW, PhD Candidate, Columbia University, New York, NY
Veronica Horowitz, PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN
Robert Stewart, PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN
Christopher Uggen, PhD, Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis
Background and Purpose: The role of state-imposed debt in exacerbating poverty and economic inequality has gained increasing attention in recent years. Two emerging strands of research in this area address child support arrears and criminal justice financial obligations (CJFOs), such as fines, fees, and restitution. Legislative efforts to offset the costs of the criminal-legal and welfare systems onto their respective “consumers” have contributed to escalating debts. Evidence suggests that, at the individual level, these legal debts can worsen economic insecurity, generate social and emotional strain, and perpetuate criminal justice involvement. Nearly all the studies on this issue have examined either child support or criminal justice debt, but not both. The present study expands on prior research by examining the experiences, perspectives, and behavioral strategies of people who carry both child support and CJFOs—individuals we refer to as dual debtors.  

This pilot study examines various dimensions of dual debtor status, including the cumulative effects of multiple debt burdens, the extent to which debtors differentiate among their various debts, how debtors navigate the processes and requirements of multiple bureaucratic state systems, and the ways in which debtors handle these complex financial obligations.

Methods: Data for this research consist of 30 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with adults (ages 27 to 58) with current outstanding child support and who are subject to CJFOs. Participants were recruited at non-profit organizations and via online bulletin boards. Interviews covered a range of topics, including family relationships, housing, income, employment, and participants’ experiences with the criminal justice and child support systems. Thematic analysis of transcript data was guided by Charmaz’ grounded theory conventions. Multi-stage coding was used to identify and develop themes.

Findings: Inductive analysis of interview data revealed five emergent themes. First, our participants experienced debt as criminogenic, meaning that debt perpetuated criminal justice involvement and contributed to additional criminal activity. Second was the salience of child support debt compared to CJFOs. Child support exceeded CJFOs in terms of debt amounts, severity of noncompliance sanctions, and symbolic importance. Third, high amounts of debt and low incomes led to system avoidance, or “staying off the grid” in order to make ends meet and to evade further sanctions. Fourth, participants experienced difficulty navigating bureaucratic systems, and often lacked thorough, accurate information related to their debts. Fifth was participants’ perceptions of fairness. Participants found at least some aspects of their debts unfair, though they reported more ambivalent feelings about child support.

Conclusions and Implications: Our findings raise questions about the ways in which debtors understand and engage with the criminal-legal and child support systems. They suggest that the reasons for nonpayment of each type of debt are complex, going well beyond individual willful noncompliance. Moreover, sanctions may be counterproductive and may have the effect of entrenching poverty among already socioeconomically marginalized people. Given that social workers facilitate individuals’ interactions with both the criminal and child support systems, it is crucial that the profession critically examine the dynamics of debt.