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Improving Health through Equitable Fee Policies

Staff Perspective Grace Streltzov

Dear Get Healthy SMC Partners,

One of my favorite things about this job is the chance to learn about issues impacting our most vulnerable in our County and ways we can advance health equity by building financial security for all people. One issue we’ve been researching recently is the impact local fines and fees can have on residents’ ability to grow their assets and savings.

Having the resources to weather an unexpected life event, pay for medical costs, and invest in a child’s education has a profound impact on one’s health and emotional well-being. Local fines and fees can unintentionally harm low-income households’ financial security. When people with less resources cannot afford to pay a traffic citation or administrative fee, they are often forced to borrow money from predatory lenders, cut back on essential needs, or let the fine go unpaid, which results in additional fees and debt. Numerous studies demonstrate that unmanaged debt not only harms our physical and mental health, but also worsens the socioeconomic conditions we need to be healthy. Unpaid municipal fines exacerbate financial instability and can create barriers to housing and economic opportunities, such as damaged credit scores, incarceration, and loss of a driver’s license. Many fines & fees also disproportionately harm families of color, particularly Black and Latinx families. Most “high pain” fees that create economic instability for families are also “low gain” for local government because they do not result in additional resources.

Luckily, agencies throughout the County are taking action. Policy solutions like the elimination of “high pain and low gain” fees and offering citation payment plans and waivers for low-income residents can protect community financial well-being. After their analysis found that late-return fees are not a significant revenue source, do not encourage prompt returns, and prevent residents, particularly in low-income communities, from accessing local libraries, the San Mateo County library system decided to stop assessing the fines. In 2018, San Mateo County eliminated and forgave $12.6 million in juvenile administrative and defense fees. These are promising policies that will minimize the growing financial insecurity experienced by lower-income households in our area. Lawmakers are also addressing this issue at the state level, including an omnibus budget bill provision eliminating the suspension of drivers licenses for failure to pay a fine (AB 103) and proposed legislation eliminating criminal justice administrative fees (SB 144).  

Interested in replicating these solutions in your agency or community?  Get Healthy SMC is here to help. Our upcoming Planning for Health toolkit will provide guidance on equitable revenue collection policies, and you can call or email me with additional questions or support requests. I look forward to continue working with you to build financial security, health, and well-being for all people in San Mateo County.

Grace Streltzov