Discussion paper

DP15899 Breaking Bad: How Health Shocks Prompt Crime

We explore the impact of health shocks on criminal behavior. Exploiting variations in the timing of cancer diagnoses, we find that health shocks elicit an increase in the probability of committing crime by 13%. This response is economically significant at both the extensive (first-time criminals) and intensive margin (reoffenders). We uncover evidence for two channels explaining our findings. First, diagnosed individuals seek illegal revenues to compensate for the loss of earnings on the legal labor market. Second, cancer patients face lower expected cost of punishment through a lower survival probability. We do not find evidence that changes in preferences explain our findings. The documented pattern is stronger for individuals who lack insurance through preexisting wealth, home equity, or marriage. Welfare programs that alleviate the economic repercussions of health shocks are effective at mitigating the ensuing negative externality on society.


Andersen, S, G Parise and K Peijnenburg (2021), ‘DP15899 Breaking Bad: How Health Shocks Prompt Crime‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 15899. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp15899