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

January 26, 2017

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.


Better Subsidized Child Care, But Could Be for Even Fewer Children

December 4, 2014

Shortly before the Senate began its extended Thanksgiving vacation, it did a remarkable thing. It again passed, by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, a bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

The House had already passed an amended version of the original bill on a voice vote, indicating that no member wanted dissents (if any) recorded. So we’ll soon have a generally better CCDBG, for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Not altogether the best bill we could have had, as such things rarely are. Nevertheless, a bill that will do various things to help ensure safe and potentially higher-quality child care.

And it will ensure that low-income parents can afford it for at least a year, even if they lose their jobs, end an education or training program or start earning somewhat more money than their state’s maximum for eligibility.

The hitch, however, is that it won’t add a cent to the block grant, though it does raise the cap on the amount Congress may appropriate by about $400 million over the next six years. Flat funding for the upcoming fiscal year, however.

So parents who manage to get CCDBG-funded vouchers should have fewer near-term worries about how they’ll afford child care — in many cases, the single largest expense in a family’s budget.

They should have fewer worries about their children’s safety because the bill requires, among other things, regular facility inspections, health and safety training for providers and employee background checks focused mainly on convictions for crimes of violence, child pornography and recent drug-related felonies.

And over time, parents should have fewer worries about whether their kids are getting the kind of care that develops the thinking, verbal and social skills they’ll need to be fully ready for kindergarten and beyond.

Under the former law, states had to set aside 4% of their block grant for quality improvements. The new law increases the mandatory set-aside up to 9% by the fifth year it covers. And it adds another 3% to improve care for infants and toddlers, beginning in the second year.

But there will be fewer of these less worried parents if Congress doesn’t also pass a hefty funding increase. Indeed, there already are fewer of them than in the recent past, even though the required set-aside has remained the same.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that an average of roughly 1.5 million children a month received CCDBG-funded child care in Fiscal Year 2012.

This represents a one-year decrease of 116,400, CLASP reports — and a decrease of about 263,000 since Fiscal Year 2006.

Here in the District of Columbia, CCDBG supported child care for an average of 1,300 children — 54% fewer than in Fiscal Year 2006. And it’s hardly the case that we’ve got fewer low-income families now — or that child care has become more affordable.

The average cost of having an infant cared for in a local center was nearly $21,950 two years ago — about $3,750 more than in 2010.

A single mother earning the median for a family of her type would have had to pay 90.6% of her income for the care, unless it was subsidized. Perish the thought she had two children whose care she needed to pay for in order to work.

In Fiscal Year 2012, states and the District spent a total of $1.5 billion less on child care than they did the year before, in part because they ran out of Recovery Act money and in part because they used more of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds for other things.

Combined federal and state childcare spending fell to the lowest level since 2002, when dollars went a whole lot further. And CCBDG spending, including transfers from TANF was virtually the same last fiscal year.

For this fiscal year, Congress restored the $154 million CCBDG had lost because of sequestration. What it will do for the upcoming fiscal year is a question mark. As I said, the reauthorizing bill provides for level funding. But that doesn’t mean the block grant will get it.

Even if it does, states will have to spend significantly more to comply with the new requirements. They’ll not only soon have to invest more in improving childcare quality.

They’ll have to develop complex new plans, including a process for ensuring that certain low-income families get priority. And they’ll have to collect and make readily accessible several types of information “to promote parental choice.”

So we should have better, more accountable publicly-funded childcare systems. But the requirements could further squeeze the amount states have to spend on subsidies.

Thus,  CLASP says, “Far greater investment — at the state and federal levels — will be needed to reverse this troubling trend” toward fewer and fewer low-income children in child care that wouldn’t bust the family budget.

Those of you who aren’t disenfranchised District residents can urge your Representative and Senators to provide the funding CCDBG needs. The National Women’s Law Center makes this quick and easy with an e-mail you can personalize.


A Sad TANF Story That Should Never Have Happened

July 18, 2011

I got a call from someone who follows this blog — a homeless mother who lives in Rockville, Maryland. She hoped I could advise her.

I couldn’t, but I’d like to tell her story because it speaks to a couple of policy issues that ought to be high on the agenda — here in the District of Columbia and nationwide.

For reasons I hope are obvious, I’m not going to use my caller’s name. Let’s just call here N.

She’s working, but earning only $8.00 an hour. Absent father pays no child support. So she and her kids depend in part on the cash benefits they get from Maryland’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

The program is about to impose full family sanctions, i.e., to cut off their benefits entirely. This, it seems, on the recommendation of the contractor that delivers the program’s job-related services.

N said that partial sanctions were first applied when a caseworker who was fired didn’t tell his successor she’d been working. Another round of partial sanctions when the new caseworker failed to submit a routine report verifying that she had been.

Both times she was told not to worry. Everything would be fine. But the caseworker then said she hadn’t applied for a particular job, as instructed. N said she had and provided such proof as she could.

But the caseworker either wouldn’t or couldn’t reverse the full family sanctions decision. So N appealed. Appeal denied, which is hardly surprising since she was up against a large multi-state job services contractor and an agency equally committed to defending itself.

This is a fine illustration of what can happen when a state adopts a full family sanctions policy. All but five have one now. And the District is about to join them.

On the one hand, states — and the District — have strong incentives to impose full family sanctions. Legal Momentum cites several in federal policy. I’d add plain old budget constraints.

On the other hand, those same budget constraints can mean little or no oversight of the operations that state agencies contract out. Note how N’s caseworkers papered over the lapses — and impacts — of the partial sanctions.

But even the best system won’t prevent misunderstandings and mistakes. That’s why TANF programs should include a pre-sanctions conciliation process.

If the objective is truly to bring participants into compliance, then why rush to sanction when there could be remedies that wouldn’t leave them and their children without enough money to live on?

It’s also why strong due process protections are so important. If all else fails, TANF participants deserve advance notice of what they’re accused of and the sanction awaiting them — and in a form they can understand. They deserve an impartial hearing that lets them tell their side of the story.

That said, TANF participants are likely to be at a disadvantage when it comes to formal hearings and the like. So, I think, would most of us be.

Which brings me to another policy issue.

N’s story shows why we need well-funded legal services programs to advise and represent low-income people when they have to deal with the powers-that-be, including complex and often unfriendly bureaucracies.

As I’ve written before, nonprofit legal services programs have been struggling with a funding crunch for some time now.

Part of the problem is that Congress has consistently under-funded the Legal Services Corporation, which provides grants to somewhat over a third of the country’s 500 or so nonprofit legal services programs.

They and others have also fallen victim to state budget cuts — and, very importantly, a huge fall-off in income from IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Account) programs.

In 2009, the Legal Services Corporation reported that fewer than 20% of the legal problems low-income people experienced were handled with the help of an attorney.

The Corporation’s budget got cut by $15.8 million in the continuing resolution that’s keeping the federal government funded now.

So I had a sinking feeling when I gave N the contact information for the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau’s Rockville office.

She needed a lawyer — actually had needed one for some time. But what are her chances of getting help with what’s now an urgent and fairly challenging problem?

What chances will other poor moms have if the Senate goes along with the House of Representatives’ spending rollback plan?


DC Attorneys Oppose Legal Services Cut, But Some Don’t Want To Chip In

May 15, 2010

Yesterday’s Washington Post reports on a breakfast meeting DC Councilmember Michael Brown hosted to discuss the proposed new income tax brackets with residents who would be affected. Also to give them a clearer view of what the tax reform would mean for them personally.

Another aim, it seems, was to test the notion that wealthy residents would flee to the suburbs if their taxes increases. The Post article indicates that some of Brown’s guests debunked it. But “younger residents–mostly attorneys–were opposed” to the tax increase.

Meanwhile, more than half the practice sessions of the D.C. Bar have issued a public statement calling on the Council to reject the proposed cut in funding for the Access to Justice Program.

This is the program that provides free legal services for low-income District residents. It also supports a bank of interpreters for those who aren’t fluent in English and/or have a hearing disability. And it helps attorneys employed by nonprofit legal services organizations pay off their student loans, thus enabling them to work for relatively little pay.

Mayor Fenty has proposed a $1.8 million cut for the program–this on top of the $700,000 cut for the current fiscal year. Together, these would leave the program with only half the D.C. funds it had in 2009.

As I’ve written before, local legal services organizations have been hard hit by reduced funding from other sources. They’ve cut back on both full-time attorneys and staff that support the quantity and quality of legal services they provide. This at a time when even more people need their help.

So the attorneys in a broad spectrum of the D.C. Bar sections understandably want at least level-funding for the Access to Justice Program. Where do the attorneys who oppose a tax increase think the money’s going to come from?

Or maybe I’m seeing a paradox where none exists. Perhaps the up-and-comers at Brown’s breakfast voted against the Bar’s statement, feeling that a couple of hundred dollars of their handsome incomes were more important than equal access to justice.

Fortunately, there are partners at a number of our biggest law firms who are ready to invest in D.C. If you’re a lawyer, you can join your voice to theirs.