When I was in law school, I was poor, and I was a recipient of food stamps and other public benefits. It was a difficult time, and had I not received that help I would never have made it through law school.
I knew, from living in a poor neighborhood, how many other moms were in my shoes, how virtually impossible it is to get out of poverty, how “the system” is stacked against you, how vulnerable you are. As a first-year law student, I was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by Legal Services to require TennCare to provide pre-natal care. The reason I sued was because I almost lost my first-born daughter, Faith, due to my inability to obtain pre-natal care. All I needed was a simple antibiotic, but because I couldn’t get it, my child (and I) almost died of pneumonia. We won that lawsuit, and TennCare covers pre-natal care. My daughter is in college now, and is a mom herself. Thank you LSC.
That’s only one of countless examples that I have personally lived: if you are a single mother, the cost of daycare is likely more than your paycheck. And if you work, you lose most of your food stamps and eligibility to receive a welfare check, and part of your rental subsidy. It is literally in your best interest to stay home in public housing, rather than to work. No politician says, “Oh, well then we need to raise the amount of public benefits.” Instead, the rhetoric is always to cut benefits, so the so-called “welfare queens” have a so-called “incentive” to go get a job.
Well, after living years in poverty and almost losing my child, this welfare queen decided to do something about it. So, in 1995, I was awarded a grant from the National Association for Public Interest Law to work for Knoxville Legal Aid Society. My job? To identify and eliminate barriers to poor people starting their own businesses in low income neighborhoods. So much can be done if someone will just pay attention. For example, I negotiated an amendment to the local public housing authority’s lease, which at the time prohibited tenants from working at home by doing things like watching their neighbor’s children or working as a seamstress. In two years, we had created an income stream for over a hundred people through that simple change. Just one of the businesses, a childcare center, had taken over a vacant apartment because of the demand for on-site childcare; they eventually grew to renovate and occupy a vacant inner city school a few blocks away, providing daycare for people who didn’t have cars, were working graveyard and weekend shifts, and employing their neighbors to watch children in licensed “satellite home day-cares” because traditional daycares didn’t offer those hours.
Such a simple thing, right? With one small negotiation, we were able to enable poor people to work nights and weekends, and for their children to be cared for in a home, in their neighborhood, with people they knew. Oh – which also created income for the people watching the kids. The work was so “revolutionary” that I was published in the Harvard Civil Rights Civil Liberties Law Review for writing about it. But it was so simple – Why had no one done this already? Because there is no institution, anywhere, set up to identify and remedy the issues that keep people poor. No institution, that is, except the Legal Services Corporation.
I worked for six years for Legal Services, and would likely still be there, except that in 1997, funding was cut and I was laid off. Now, that funding is threatened with total elimination.
LSC was created in 1974 when President Richard Nixon acknowledged a “need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation.” LSC helped an estimated 1.8 million people in 2013, including homeless veterans, low-income workers, and victims of domestic violence. Hey, if you think homeless veterans, low-income workers, and victims of domestic violence can afford the several thousand dollars that private attorneys charge up front, then we don’t need legal services. Or, if you want domestic violence victims to face their abusers alone; if you want tenants to be completely at the mercy of slum lords; and if you don’t want to look – really look – at the reasons people who are poor cannot get on their feet, then by all means, support this recent defunding effort.
But I submit to you that the most fundamental principles of our democracy depend on our commitment to provide access to the legal system to people who, in some circumstances, cannot afford it. Private attorneys simply cannot meet that need without LSC’s leadership. The Courts cannot address the needs of unrepresented parties, and the rules are too complex for untrained, often illiterate people, to represent themselves.
I know there are many people requesting that you call your congressperson over one issue or the next. But I must join in that request. I would not be where I am today without LSC. My daughter might not be here without LSC. I have chosen to remain in the neighborhood where I lived while in law school, and I know it would be in far worse shape without LSC. Defunding LSC will destabilize entire communities of economically vulnerable people. To defund the institution charged with ensuring that our Constitutional edict of equal access to justice is a reality, not just words carved on the wall of our law school, is unpatriotic. Please do not stand by and idly watch this happen. Please call or email or write your congressperson, and demand that they do their job and defend our Constitution by defending LSC’s funding.