First We Kill All the Lawyers for Poor People (Or As Many As We Can)

Old story, new chapter. We don’t have enough lawyers to give low-income people an even playing field in non-criminal cases that will have major consequences for their lives. (Not enough for criminal cases either, but that’s a separate story.)

Now we’ve reasons to expect that our newly-elected President will move to deny millions of low-income people free professional legal advice and representation by wiping out the Legal Services Corporation—the single largest source of funding for them.

How the Legal Services Corporation Fits Into the Anti-Poverty Effort

LCS has its roots in the War on Poverty, as one of many initiatives to afford poor people economic opportunities by delivering funds to local organizations. It became an independent, nonprofit corporation during the Nixon administration.

Its purpose, the law says, is to “provide legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel” because that “will serve best the ends of justice and assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons.”

The Corporation ran into trouble when President Reagan took office, bringing with him hostilities from his time as California’s governor. But it survived and recovered lost funding.

During the Clinton administration, however, Congressional Republicans took out after it. And Clinton agreed to new limits on what it could do and for whom as part of the bargain that ended welfare as we knew it.

For this reason, plus funding limits LSC-funded organizations are properly part of a more comprehensive and diverse informal system that helps poor and near-poor people when they need, but can’t afford legal advice and/or representation.

But they’re an essential part. LSC provides financial support to 134 grantees. Collectively, they have somewhat over 800 offices throughout the country. That meant nearly 4,600 lawyers available to help people with incomes no greater than 125% of the federal poverty line in 2015.

Lawyers in LSC-funded organizations handle a range of matters. The two most common types are family matters, e.g., custody cases, domestic violence, and housing issues, e.g., foreclosures, threatened evictions. They also, among other things, help clients secure the benefits they’re entitled to.

Yet they can’t help nearly as many people as seek their aid. They turn away half or more, the Corporation says. And these are only people who come to them and ask—not those who’ve heard it’s probably futile.

These facts and figures all argue, as the Corporation did, for a larger appropriation. What it’s received in the last two years is less in real-dollars than it had before the recession set in, though the number of people whose incomes make them eligible has significantly increased.

A funding increase could help reduce homelessness—and with it, poverty, as Matthew Desmond’s justly-celebrated Evicted shows.

An increase might be even a life-or-death matter, since LSC-funded attorneys represent clients in domestic violence cases. (Lest you think that grants awarded under the Violence Against Women Act would suffice, they too reportedly could be zeroed out.)

Why the Concern for the Corporation

Last week, The Hill reported that Trump transition team staff had been meeting with career White House staff to develop a plan for reducing the federal budget. And by a whole lot — $10.5 trillion in the first 10 years.

This is even larger than what the House Republican Study Committee came up with, but couldn’t get a vote on.

The Trump team reportedly is relying on a budget blueprint the far-right Heritage Foundation published last year. It would have balanced this year’s budget within seven years, while cutting taxes by $1.3 trillion over ten—this without touching the core of defense.

To get there, it would eliminate a host of programs—not only the LCS and VAWA grants, but others that “assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons,” e.g., the job training programs funded under the Work Innovations and Opportunity Act.

It would phase out Head Start. And it would cut the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by a third because it’s sought to protect voting rights and has “filed abusive lawsuits intended to enforce progressive social ideology in areas ranging from public hiring to public education.”

It would also ensure that we couldn’t measure the impacts so well because it would eliminate funding for the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure — a long-standing target of the Heritage Foundation.

Now, The Hill report may prove nothing but a gift to other news media, which need a constant supply of new angles for Trump stories—and for bloggers of the policy sort. Who knows what Trump will do? He himself often seems not to know.

But the Legal Services Corporation has proved vulnerable in the past — most of all when the lawyers it funds effectively champion the interests of the constituency they’re supposed to serve.

So this inkling of an attack on yet another program to further economic and social justice should, I think, serve as an early warning.

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