Cutting the Poverty Rate with Civil Legal Aid

According to the new data from the US Census Bureau, 46.7 million Americans live in poverty. That’s 46.7 million people who are making impossible choices every day between paying the rent, feeding their children, obtaining healthcare, and meeting other basic needs. And that’s not even counting the many more who are a layoff or single crisis away from a similar fate.

There are no quick or easy fixes to eliminate poverty. But there is a vital resource in our communities that helps prevent many people from falling into poverty while lifting others out of it: civil legal aid. By providing legal assistance to people who face potentially life-changing and destabilizing challenges—like wrongful evictions and foreclosures, domestic abuse, and debilitating medical crises—civil legal aid allows people to protect their homes, families, and livelihoods. And it does it in a cost-effective way: A New York Task Force study found that every dollar invested in civil legal aid delivers six dollars back to the state’s economy. Unfortunately, because of a lack of investment in this resource, many families don’t get the legal help they need and therefore face the prospect of economic ruin.

It’s all too easy to become poor. In challenging economic times and with growing income inequality, it’s often a matter of bad luck. For example, Mary is a hard-working single mother in Maine who lost her job as a hairdresser when the salon that employed her unexpectedly closed down. It was already difficult to support her three children on her salary; after losing her job and then struggling to rebuild her client base at a new salon, she was unable to continue paying the rent. She found herself and her children at risk of losing the roof over their heads.

But as is the case for many people throughout the nation, things took a turn for the better when Mary got help from a civil legal aid organization. Pine Tree Legal Assistance worked with her to challenge the eviction and negotiate an agreement with her landlord that allowed her family to stay in their home and avoid poverty and a costly stay in a local shelter.

Every dollar invested in civil legal aid delivers six dollars back to the state’s economy

Civil legal aid also helps people who are already in poverty. Monica is a former Navy officer who was discharged for misconduct following an in-service sexual assault—behavior that was a symptom of her undiagnosed and untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that resulted from the assault. Despite her service to our country, she found herself unable to access veterans’ benefits due to the discharge, and was battling homelessness, jail, and addiction. She turned to Bay Area Legal Aid in California for assistance. Civil legal aid lawyers helped Monica navigate a complex system to prove that she was assaulted in the military and consequently suffered from PTSD. She now receives veteran’s benefits—including disability compensation—which is helping her get her life back on track.

Others need civil legal aid in order to escape dangerous situations, like domestic violence. In Illinois, Kayla was struggling to support herself and her son after ending a bad relationship with her child’s father—who not only withheld child support, but physically abused her during parental visits. With the help of Prairie State Legal Services, Kayla secured a protective order against her abuser as well as several thousand dollars in unpaid child support. The award and the protective order allowed her to move to another state, lift herself out of poverty, and build a new life for her family. She now makes more than $50,000 a year working as a welder.

I wish that every story of a family experiencing poverty had a happy ending. But that’s not the case, and a lack of legal counsel should never be the reason that a family can’t work its way out of poverty. In more than 70 percent of civil cases today, Americans are headed to court without legal representation. We simply don’t provide enough resources to civil legal aid organizations, and therefore too many people go without the legal help needed to avert poverty and better their lives.



First Person

What the Pope’s Fight Against Poverty Looks Like in North Philly

Pope Francis’s call for an urgent response to poverty is unambiguous. As he writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises.”

In anticipation of the Pope’s arrival in Philadelphia, TalkPoverty visited with Tianna Gaines-Turner—a member of Witnesses to Hunger and a leader in the anti-poverty movement—to talk about what the fight against poverty looks like through her eyes.

This is what she had to say.



First Person

On My Way to Meet Pope Francis

I am a 60-year-old proud mother and grandmother, and I am on my way to meet Pope Francis.  My heart is pounding with excitement in anticipation of this once-in-a-lifetime moment. As I sit on a train to Washington, where I will attend a ceremony welcoming the Pope to the White House, my nerves increase and I ask myself: What will I say to His Holiness?

I am a devout Catholic so I will want to talk about religion. And there are other issues near and dear to me such as immigration and worker’s rights. But since my time with the Pope will be brief, I will focus on one issue—poverty.  Pope Francis is a champion of the poor, and this is a subject I know well. I am among the one million people in New Jersey living in poverty.

For more than a decade, I have worked as a cabin cleaner at Newark Liberty International Airport. I can barely afford to pay the rent for a modest apartment I share with a roommate in Newark, much less buy a ticket to fly on any of the airplanes I clean every day. Meanwhile, airline profits and CEO pay are soaring.

My faith in God gives me the strength to carry on and fight not just for myself, but for all low-wage workers.

As a Catholic, I believe that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I know that we need to fight for just wages. So even after working a night shift of labor-intensive work, with aches and pains in my body, I’ve participated in marches and rallies with my union brothers and sisters. I also testify regularly at public meetings to call on NY/NJ Port Authority officials to follow through on their promise to raise the wage. We are still waiting. In the meantime, airport workers must work two or even three jobs to pay the bills because the $10.10 per hour we earn still leaves us below the federal poverty level for a family of four. And it’s not just airport workers—it’s fast-food workers, retail workers, and home care workers. That’s why the Fight for $15 movement has inspired so many of us to stand and fight together. Because “those who mourn, will be comforted.”

On the train, I am wearing a beautiful traditional dress from Peru, my native country. This dress reminds of me of that bittersweet moment when, tearfully, I said goodbye to my family and friends so that I could come to America and give my five children a better life. I will tell the Pope about this arduous journey and how my faith has carried me through difficult times—times when I went without food so my children could eat. I will tell him that despite hunger pains, faith has nourished my heart and soul. My faith in God gives me the strength to carry on and fight not just for myself, but for all low-wage workers who clock-in and out of work every day but still don’t earn enough to make ends meet. As the Pope said, “the poor shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of money.”

“Poverty in the world is a scandal,” Pope Francis said. “In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.”

Does the Port Authority hear our cries? Does America?


First Person

Creating Dignity and Value Through Service

Every Wednesday evening for more than two years, anywhere from 150 to 300 men, women, and even children, line up for a free meal we serve in downtown Washington, DC. The program, called St. Maria’s Meals, isn’t going to end poverty or get any of our clients out of their very challenging situations on its own. But it has started to build a community and send a message that each diner has dignity and value. And on September 24th, about 300 of our clients will have an up close encounter with Pope Francis as the last stop on his visit to Washington, DC.

I keep pinching myself; it still seems like a dream that the Pope is coming to visit our clients and staff. But will that visit do anything to change the reality of hardship for these folks?

There’s a beautiful passage near the end of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, that I would like to use as a frame for why I say yes:

“One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals…That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need.”

I love this passage because it neatly sums up for me of the central truth: you must see the joy and dignity in every aspect of life. Part of embracing that truth requires us to reevaluate how we approach our lives.

I fully expect Pope Francis to challenge us. I have seen many headlines framing this as adversarial – “The Pope vs. America,” as one headline in Politico read recently. Yet, these articles misunderstand the Pope’s intentions – we hardly consider the guidance of a loving father to be “parent versus kid”, right? I don’t presume to put words in the mouth of the Holy Father, but he often reminds me of the popular mantra, “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”

As the leader of one of the Washington-region’s largest nonprofits working in human services, I am fortunate enough to count some of the region’s most successful business leaders as friends and dear supporters of Catholic Charities. These are people who care deeply about the well-being of their neighbors and turn to Catholic Charities to help out.

And I am blessed to count many of our homeless neighbors as friends I’ve met at our weekly St. Maria’s Meals Dinner Van.  Many of these folks struggle with some combination of unemployment, addiction, isolation, estranged family relations, behavioral health, and plain bad luck.

Pope Francis, in echoing centuries of Church teaching, reminds us that we cannot make distinctions between our homeless neighbors and business leaders.  He will tell us it is the little things, along with the larger structural factors, that make an impact for both good and bad. How we treat our family impacts how we treat strangers. How we treat our co-workers reflects how we treat those who can offer us nothing in return. How we treat litter reflects how we see the value of the earth, the sources of our food, and the cleanliness of our water.

Which brings me back to the fun we have every Wednesday at St. Maria’s Meals and to some of the friendships between our volunteers and clients. I’ve seen people who were previously disengaged from society start to take small steps towards coming back in. These are people who would not have otherwise come across each other, and I can say with certainty we have all enriched each other’s lives. It starts over a meal.

Many Pope-watchers in Washington expect and hope for concrete policy or strong direction from Pope Francis on any range of issues or topics. Perhaps they will hear something to that effect, but that’s not for me to speculate on. What I do know is that when Pope Francis says goodbye to the Speaker of the House of the US Congress and makes the one-mile drive to meet with 300 homeless residents over lunch, his actions will provide a model for all of us.



Pope Francis is Political. To Follow Him, We Must Be Too

Pope Francis is the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and a global celebrity with admirers from many faith traditions. On the eve of his first-ever visit to the United States, Pope Francis’s 59 percent approval rating among US adults must make members of Congress—whose approval rating is a dismal 14 percent—weep with envy.

But what makes Pope Francis so much more popular than Congress? Undoubtedly a mix of qualities you don’t find among many elected officials: his humility, his joy, and his embrace—sometimes quite literally—of the elderly, the disabled, the immigrant, and the prisoner. But don’t be fooled by his distinctly un-politician-like authenticity or his defiance of partisan labels—Pope Francis is a savvy political strategist.

In public appearances and written commentary, Pope Francis often weighs in on the pressing political issues of our time. He has shared opinions that are grounded in hundreds of years of Catholic teaching—on the economy, immigration and refugee crises, institutional corruption, the environment, and armed conflict. He has flexed political muscle in some of the most intractable international relations challenges of modern time, praying for peace with leaders from Israel and Palestine and helping to secure newly restored diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. And his encyclical on the environment—released this summer in order to influence December’s United Nations Paris Climate Change Conference—implores world leaders to help reduce carbon emissions in their countries to curb the effects of climate change.

If, like the Pope, we can be faithful and fearless, our prophetic witness can stir the political will to fundamentally reshape our society.

When he visits the US this week, we will see Pope Francis’s politics come to life. He will visit the White House, Congress, and the United Nations, as well as DC Catholic Charities, a school in Harlem, and a Philadelphia prison. He will walk a path from our nation’s seat of power to the margins of our society, inviting us to follow him and, in the process, asking us to partner with him in building a more just society.

In fact, you can already see political will being stirred by Pope Francis’s call. The Vatican is leading by example in responding to the global refugee crisis and housing refugee families from Syria. In Chicago, Archbishop Blaise Cupich has reaffirmed Catholic support for just wages and has challenged right-to-work laws that weaken unions. And, in light of the Pope’s encyclical, more than 150 leaders from Catholic institutions of higher education have pledged to make ecological justice central to their work.

When Pope Francis visits the US this week, we must resist the cynicism of critics who think his political call to transform structures of injustice is unbecoming of a spiritual leader. As he insists, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” And we must push back against tired rhetoric from politicians who talk about social ills more than they work to solve them.

Pope Francis’s visit is a challenge to us all to build a nation that more fully embraces the dignity of our homeless, our workers, our families, our immigrants, and our incarcerated sisters and brothers. If, like the Pope, we can be faithful and fearless, our prophetic witness can stir the political will to fundamentally reshape our society. Take notes while Pope Francis is here, and when he leaves we’ll have an inspired to-do list.