A Renewed Vision of Civil Legal Services as Antipoverty Work

Across the country, legal services attorneys play a largely hidden but essential role as first responders to American poverty. The family facing foreclosure after falling behind on the mortgage when both Mom and Dad lost their jobs in the recession. The mother of three, fleeing domestic abuse, who desperately needs a protective order to keep herself and her children safe. The woman with stage four cancer and six months to live, who has been wrongfully denied Social Security and Medicare. Without legal services, they would have nowhere to turn.

Day in and day out, legal services attorneys fight for the rights of poor individuals and families, providing legal help to people who cannot afford an attorney. Access to representation is vitally important.  But as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it’s time to renew the vision of legal services as antipoverty work.

While American legal aid has existed since the turn of the 20th century, the creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as part of LBJ’s War on Poverty offered a bold new vision of legal services as an antipoverty strategy, and legal services attorneys as agents of systemic change. Catherine Carr, Executive Director of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, describes this historic shift:

Access to representation has supplanted the bolder vision of law reform and systemic change.

No longer were legal aid programs being designed to simply respond to the problems that individual poor people brought to intake offices; instead, the programs were to work with low-income communities to identify needs and strategically set priorities that protected and advanced the rights of poor people and poor communities as a whole.

In the years that followed, legal services proved to be an enormously effective antipoverty tool. Legal services programs lobbied elected officials, engaged in local and national social justice organizing efforts, won landmark victories in courts across the nation on behalf of their clients, and thereby brought about systemic change that benefited poor people nationwide. The watershed U.S. Supreme Court case Goldberg v. Kelly, for example, established that a poor person has a constitutional right to a fair hearing before his or her welfare benefits can be terminated.

Fifty years later, legal services attorneys continue to fight on behalf of low-income Americans who cannot afford legal help. But much of the work today more closely resembles the “legal aid” vision that existed prior to the 1960s rather than the “law reform” vision brought about by the OEO as part of the War on Poverty.

This shift is in large part due to conservative backlash against legal services as an antipoverty tool. It didn’t take long for conservatives to view a strong legal services movement as a threat.  In the decades that followed the launch of the War on Poverty, they placed restrictions on legal services programs, barring those that accept federal funding from engaging in much of the work that effects systemic change.

President Nixon prohibited staff attorneys from lobbying or engaging in political activities. President Reagan—who, as Governor of California, had battled efforts to improve the working conditions of poor migrant farmworkers—prohibited legal services programs from using federal dollars for legislative and regulatory activities as well as class action lawsuits. Even after the Reagan restrictions, many legal services programs found alternative funding sources to support their law reform activities. But in 1996, the Gingrich Congress hammered the final nail into the coffin, expanding the restrictions to any legal services program that accepted even a single dollar of federal funds.

While a small number of programs found ways to continue their law reform work—for example, by creating separate programs to receive unrestricted dollars—most responded by backing away from the kinds of systemic work that had proven most effective at impacting large numbers of poor people, in favor of the “legal aid” model of one-off individual client representation.

Today an ever-shrinking number of legal services programs—and legal services attorneys—view their role and mission as that of antipoverty work.  Access to representation has supplanted the bolder vision of law reform and systemic change.

To be sure, a handful of programs still embrace the OEO vision. As a new lawyer fresh out of law school, I had the good fortune to land in one of those programs: Community Legal Services in Philadelphia (CLS). As a staff attorney at CLS, I learned firsthand the power of the “law reform” model that CLS continues to embody, providing representation to poor Philadelphians, and using that individual representation to inform large-scale systemic work—through class action and impact litigation as well as legislative advocacy on the local, state and national level.

The cutbacks and restrictions championed by Nixon, Reagan and Gingrich have without question made it much more complicated and challenging for many legal services programs to engage in law reform. As long as the restrictions persist, unrestricted programs like CLS must take seriously their responsibility to prioritize law reform work, given that there are so few programs free to pursue it.

But even restricted programs can find ways to maximize their role as part of the antipoverty movement. Media is a powerful example, as human stories have the power to bring abstract policy debates to life. As advocates who interact with low-income individuals and families on a daily basis, legal services attorneys are uniquely positioned to tell the story of how few poor families are actually helped by TANF, for example; or how struggling families have no room for SNAP cuts; or how inadequate the official federal poverty measure is. They can paint a picture of the barriers people face in seeking to get a job—people with criminal records, for example—or what it’s like to be working full-time and still unable to rise out of poverty. They can tell the story of how and why it’s expensive to be poor. Even better, they can empower their clients to tell their own stories. offers a unique new outlet to tell these stories, and I hope to see a steady stream of contributions from legal services advocates and their clients in the months and years ahead.

But we must also look beyond the present. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and the Office of Economic Opportunity, let’s pave the way for a renewed legal services movement—one that is unhindered by restrictions and plays a leading role in bringing an end to poverty.




New Ways to Fight Sex Trafficking

Nikki fell in love with her pimp.  “Instantly,” she says. “He knew that I didn’t have a dad.  He used that to gain control over my mind and eventually over my actions, showing me that he loved me, and giving me things that I had never had before.  They move you away from your family, from anyone who could care for you, or rescue you…  Things that would make other people’s skin crawl turn out to be normal occurrences to you. And at that point, you are completely dominated by this person…  I knew I was being exploited, or beaten, or raped, or tortured, for the commercial gain of another human being.”

This is a real story—an all-too common story—from an American girl.  Others like it can be heard in a powerful video compiled by the Human Rights Project for Girls.  Together, these stories weave a narrative of one of the most heinous human rights abuses against American children in the United States today:  commercial sex exploitation, often described as a form of modern-day slavery. “You belong to this person,” Nikki says in the video.  “I was definitely not free.”

I knew I was being exploited, or beaten, or raped, or tortured, for the commercial gain of another human being.

According to a 2009 review commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average age at which girls first become victims of sex trafficking is 12-14 years old, and direct service providers report increasingly younger victims over the past decade.  Two of the most significant risk factors for children to become victims of sex trafficking are poverty and a history of trauma, especially sexual abuse.  These are girls who live at the margins, and they need and deserve our attention, and our help.

Yet we are failing these girls—on a significant scale.  The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 American children every year are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, and the vast majority are girls.  To help address this crisis, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality issued a report, Blueprint:  A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Sex Trafficking of Girls, which analyzes the problems with current approaches to sex trafficking.  As the report describes, law enforcement typically treats the girls as prostitutes, even though they are too young to legally consent to sex.  They are seen as perpetrators of a crime, rather than victims.  The majority of states do not have safe haven laws that prevent children from being prosecuted for prostitution.

The story of Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a former victim who is now an anti-trafficking advocate, reveals how our systems can miss opportunities for intervention. Ms. Pettigrew was abused from infanthood and placed in a group home that was targeted by pimps. She says that she came to believe  that her life was valuable only for the paycheck her body could earn. She was repeatedly re-sold and raped for her pimp’s profit and was moved from state to state. Finally, she was arrested at 15 and placed in one of the largest juvenile detention center in Nevada, where, she reports, many girls languished on solicitation charges.

We must do better for our girls—and, indeed, some communities are.  Our report highlights collaborative approaches in three jurisdictions that represent real progress in the fight against sex trafficking.  One is LA County, in which the probation department, the LAPD, the child welfare system, and the district attorney’s office are working together with the strong backing of local government to better identify victims, many of whom have been wards of the state.  As a team, the group assesses victims’ needs and creates appropriate treatment and placement plans that prioritize diversion from the criminal justice system.  In addition, the county has created a special court to serve victims based on the same collaborative model that also includes the survivor, her attorney, and advocacy groups.

Other localities should follow such admirable leads and form comprehensive multidisciplinary teams that benefit from the diverse experience of its members, many of whom have met these girls before.

Child sex trafficking victims are survivors.  They are tough.  But they need our help.  In T’s words, “They need hope, relationships – something to live for.”  They deserve that much – and far more.




Tethered to Hope

Relationships matter.  They really matter.

For Niki Davis, it took more than money to move from homelessness to homeownership.  A college educated artist, when she walked into LIFT’s DC office after a decade of financial and emotional stressors, she was skeptical.

She recalls that it had been a long time since someone treated her with dignity and respect—like a human being.  Over the course of a year, she and her Advocate—a LIFT volunteer—partnered weekly to get her off of shaky ground. What began as a goal of finding a shelter became a journey to homeownership, with Niki and her Advocate working side-by-side to navigate the maze of mortgage lending.  Today, Niki owns her home and is feeling more empowered than ever before about her future.  She didn’t come to us seeking only financial help.  She sought collaboration, and LIFT became her social network.

To hear Niki tell it, LIFT worked for her because, “There’s something much more empowering about working collaboratively. [The volunteer Advocates] had a great zest and enthusiasm—a young generation without the experience but the brainpower and hope and no loss of spirit, because it hasn’t been beaten out of them. It’s a different pace, a complete positive belief that it can get better. That let me get out of any sense of hopelessness.”

What Niki’s story underscores—and what we’ve seen in many of the stories from the 100,000 families we’ve worked with—is the importance of connections in driving success.  It took cash for Niki to secure her mortgage and make ends meet, but it also took her plugging into and activating the network of people around her to ensure that her dream became a reality.

...if we ultimately want to help people establish financial security we must bolster confidence and build social capital.

At LIFT, we help people build the personal, social, and financial foundations they need to get ahead. In fact, we believe that having confidence and connections are so important that it actually accelerates the financial gains a person is making.

When people are plugged in—have a social network, friends, people who they know will have their back—it can make the difference between giving up and pressing on; between getting a job opportunity or not.  It can also make the difference between having a safe, stable home and living on the street.

I know this—not just from my work at LIFT—but because I lived in a homeless shelter in DC when I was a kid. It was a converted old Hotel called The Braxton, and back then, times were really tough. But, even before Facebook and Twitter, I had my own social network of sorts that rallied around my family.  I had the support of DC’s most iconic organizations like Martha’s Table, Central Union Mission, Bread for the City, the Capital Area Food Bank, and my church.  This network ensured that we were able to eat, get back and fourth to school, and get housing faster than the 10-year waiting list for Section 8 housing would allow. These organizations and many more helped my family get answers to problems that seemed too intimidating to answer on our own. They were my social network much like LIFT is to the community members we serve.  I didn’t have to go through being homeless by myself and today I have the incredible privilege of telling the stories of hope that need to be told to thousands of people every day.

The result of LIFT’s focus on relationships and connections—the transformation that occurs between two people working together in trust—is real and tangible.

We are actually measuring whether things like confidence and connectedness have an impact on our Members’ ability reach their goals. We call that measurement Constituent Voice (CV) and you can learn more about it here.  Essentially, it’s an evaluation and measurement tool we use to unearth the critical keys to our Members’ success.  What we are finding so far supports the power of social networks in social services.

We’re seeing that members with top CV scores are twice as likely to achieve things like getting a job or securing stable housing.  There is consistent correlation between the quality of our relationships and our members’ achievement of economic outcomes. This is telling us that relationships matter.

We are also finding that three of the top five most predictive indicators of ultimate economic progress aren’t financial in nature – they’re social connectedness, belief in oneself, and confidence.  This is also telling us that relationships really matter.

For anti-poverty organizations, it is clear that if we ultimately want to help people establish financial security we must bolster confidence and build social capital.

Think about what this could mean for closing the opportunity gap and for the strength of the anti-poverty movement as a whole.  If we allow ourselves to imagine the possibilities, we can envision an America where Niki’s zip code, or my own, or yours, wouldn’t determine the trajectory of our lives.

When relationships are formed, individuals thrive, communities thrive, and collectively we ALL thrive as a nation. Having each other’s backs should be a given.  Those relationships are the thread that keeps struggling families tethered to hope.




Athena’s Future

Athena is from Camden, New Jersey (insert all the myths, lies, half-truths, and realities here). Schools and police force: state takeover. Two comprehensive high schools: both ranked at the bottom yearly.  A food desert has created a community where childhood obesity and diabetes are more common than in other communities around the country.  The unemployment rate—double the state average. Medium household income is $20,000.  And, yes, Camden infamously ranks at the top of America’s most dangerous cities.

Still, there is much to be proud of—like the Center for Environmental Transformation, creating urban gardens; The Neighborhood Center—a city staple with programming for people of all ages as well as emergency services; and, experiencing a resurgence, Pyne Poynt Little League which is molding young men, and I Dare to Care which focuses on empowering girls.

And then there are kids like Athena.athena



She is smart, gritty, and a loyal friend if you earn her trust. She will not let life in Camden defeat her—she dares to dream in a city where poverty produces way too many nightmares.   She is determined to take advantage of opportunities that empower her and fuel her passions, and she’ll readily dismiss any nonbelievers. But she was not always this confident in herself and her direction.

I met Athena in 2008 through my role as director of a new bold and ambitious initiative established at Rutgers University, the Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS) program.  RFS is a multifaceted college access, success, and scholarship program designed to empower students like Athena in areas of academics, culture, and finances.

In 2007, the year before we launched RFS, less than 10 Camden City public school graduates enrolled at Rutgers-Camden. The fact that only 7% of Camden residents have earned a college degree even though there is a top-notch university in their backyard is shameful…on Rutgers. What civic responsibility do we bear as a member of the community? Universities are only as good as the communities they call home.  One of our responses was launching RFS.

Each year, RFS introduces 200 first-generation, low-income and academically promising middle school students from school districts in our four campus communities of New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, and Camden to the promise and opportunities of a college education. Beginning in the summer preceding 8th grade, Scholars become part of a unique pre-college culture of university programming, events, support, and mentoring that continues through their high school years, and eventually college.

An opportunity gap widens the division between those relying on just hope and those who have real opportunities.

For students who successfully complete the pre-college part of the program and earn admission to Rutgers, we provide full tuition funding through scholarships and federal grants. In short, the Rutgers Future Scholars offers both hope and opportunity.

To date, we serve 1200 Scholars in grades 8 through their freshman year of college. Ninety-seven percent graduated high school and 96% enrolled in college. In our first class of 183 Scholars—projected to graduate in 2017—nearly 100 enrolled at Rutgers University. Scholars at our local community colleges can also earn a full-tuition scholarships to complete their bachelor’s degree at Rutgers.

Athena has successfully completed her first year at the Rutgers School of Nursing and boasts a strong GPA.  She also has embraced a leadership role on campus.

“Future Scholars has given me the support system I needed to succeed,” says Athena.  “When things got rough, they pushed me and never let me give up on my education. They are my family.”

The reality is this: America has hundreds of Camdens and hundreds of thousands of Athenas. Children are being awakened too early from the American dream. Meritocracy doesn’t seem to have room for everyone here—some may argue it’s purposely so. An opportunity gap widens the division between those relying on just hope and those who have real opportunities. Serving communities that are typically out of sight and out of mind—with a focused intentionality—will benefit all of us.

The future of America—and the solutions to many of our nation’s problems—lie within the untapped talents and aspirations of children like Athena.  Rutgers Future Scholars and other community-focused programs are attempting to transform our nation by investing in human potential.




Was ‘Welfare Spending’ Up Substantially Before the Great Recession?

In a speech to the Population Association of America earlier this month, economist Robert Moffitt argued that “welfare spending is up—but help for the neediest is down.” The assertion has gotten a fair amount of positive attention from progressive bloggers who have highlighted the “help for the neediest is down” part of the equation. But before embracing Moffitt’s take wholeheartedly, it’s important to closely examine the “welfare spending is up” half of his argument.

Moffitt’s analysis tracks trends through 2007, the year before the Great Recession and major legislation like the Recovery Act and Affordable Care Act. In the discussion below, I’ll stick with his time frame. But a fuller analysis would also track spending trends through both the Great Recession and a return to near full employment, which hasn’t happened yet of course.

The first two charts below track federal spending on what I’ll broadly call income security programs through 2007. Instead of looking at the change in spending on a per capita basis, as Moffitt did, I compare spending to the size of the economy (GDP). This is a common way to examine spending trends, and a common sense way to assess whether we have become “more generous” over time as Moffitt asserts.

Figure 1 shows total federal spending on these programs and the programs individually between 1962 and 2007. To allow for a clearer look at the overall trend, the second chart just tracks the change in total spending (again as a share of GDP) on these programs between 1972 and 2007.

Figure 1. Federal Spending on Income Security Programs as a Percent of GDP, 1962-2007


Figure 2. Total Federal Spending on Income Security as a Percent of GDP, 1972-2007


Source: Author’s Analysis of OMB Historical Tables, FY2015 Budget

Looking at Figure 2, it’s hard to see any big change in generosity since the mid-1970s. If you look at the peaks in spending (which occur during recessionary periods) since the mid-1970s, spending has trended downward slightly since its 1976 peak. If you look at the troughs in spending (during low-unemployment periods), spending trended downward slightly through 1989, and then upward modestly in 2000. So, for example, expenditures on income security programs totaled 1.73 percent of GDP in 2007, an amount .18 percentage points higher than in 1979. While .18 percent of the economy isn’t peanuts, it’s hard to see it as a significant expansion in the welfare state.

To thicken the plot further, Figure 3 tracks the change in federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services. There was a large increase (about 1 percent of GDP) between the declaration of the War on Poverty and last years of the Carter Administration. But since then, there has been a substantial decline in federal investments in education, training, employment and social services (about .6 percent of GDP).

Figure 3. Federal Spending on Education, Training, Employment and Social Services as a Percent of GDP, 1972-2007

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If you look at the trend in total federal spending on income security plus education, training, employment and social services, the story is more about retrenchment than the expansion story Moffitt tells.

It is also worth noting some of the trends in individual programs. Most notably, as Figure 1 shows, spending on unemployment insurance as a share of the economy has declined steadily since the mid-1970s. Similarly, spending on “family and other support assistance”, primarily the Temporary Assistance program (and its predecessor AFDC), has also declined significantly.

The fact is that our core “unemployment system”—composed of unemployment insurance, the unemployment assistance provided through Temporary Assistance, and reemployment and training services—has gotten smaller over the last few decades, as compared to the size of the economy.

At the same time, we’ve allowed the minimum wage to decline substantially in real terms; labor market institutions like unions that boost wages for the working class have also weakened; and we’ve increased the payroll tax, while expanding two programs, the EITC and Child Tax Credit, that use public dollars in large part to subsidize poorly compensated employment. (A related issue with the EITC is that employers may capture roughly a quarter out of every dollar of EITC benefits through wage reductions, as economist Jessie Rothstein’s research suggests.)

Any comprehensive examination of whether the “welfare state” has become more or less generous over the last several decades needs to take these issues into account. It would also have to take into account distribution of the many social welfare benefits besides the EITC and Child Tax Credit that are provided through the tax system, including: the mortgage interest deduction and the exclusion from income for tax purposes of various employer-provided benefits. As the Congressional Budget Office has documented, the value of these benefits is very large as a share of GDP and most of these benefits go to households with incomes that put them in the top 20 percent of the population. For example, the mortgage interest deduction is a larger program than the EITC and the vast majority of its benefits go to those in the top 20 percent.

And neither my analysis nor Moffitt’s analysis, for the most part, discuss trends in health insurance or pensions. These are also areas where any comprehensive discussion of “generosity” needs to take not just Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security into account, but also the set of “submerged” welfare state programs, particularly the tax preferences for employer-based health and pension benefits.

To sum up, Moffitt raises important issues about the profound decline in the effectiveness of means-tested Temporary Assistance as an unemployment assistance program for low-income parents. But his blanket claim that means-tested welfare spending was up before the Great Recession is overstated, and his analysis misses the extent to which the non-means-tested unemployment insurance program and other parts of our core unemployment system have been weakened over time.