Francesca, a mother of two, was struggling to provide for her family. She took $20 worth of clothing from a store—landing her with a citation and a $300 fine. She paid off the fine, but the record of the ticket followed her, and made it impossible for her to find and keep a stable job. Thanks to a U.S. Department of Labor funded job-training program, she was referred to Legal Action of Wisconsin, who helped her get the ticket dismissed and expunged. Almost immediately, she got a job at a bank call center—a job she’d been rejected from previously due to her record. Less than eight months later, she got a raise.
Francesca was lucky. Most of the millions of low-income Americans faced with catastrophic events—like an abusive partner, the potential loss of a home or a job, or lack of health care—don’t get the legal help they need. Paying for legal assistance is out of the question, since lawyers cost $200 to $300 per hour on average. Legal aid options exist, but they’re stretched painfully thin: There’s less than one legal aid attorney available per 10,000 Americans living in poverty. As a result, an estimated 80% of low-income Americans’ legal needs go unmet.
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Our justice system—and our ability to achieve a wide range of federal priorities—depends on people getting the services they need to address their problems. That’s why four years ago the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice created a federal interagency group to identify the federal programs, policies, and initiatives that would be more effective with civil legal aid. Last year, President Obama recognized the power of civil legal aid by making the effort a White House initiative and expanding its reach to 22 federal agencies.
Federal programs that are designed to help the most vulnerable and underserved among us may more readily achieve their goals if they include legal aid among the range of services they provide. By encouraging Federal departments and agencies to collaborate, share best practices, and consider the impact of legal services on the success of their programs, the Federal Government can enhance access to justice in our communities.
The tight match between federal agencies and legal aid happens throughout the federal government. The Department of Labor, for example, has a vested interest in making sure Francesca—and the millions of Americans like her—can find and keep a job. The Department of Veterans Affairs needs to make sure that veterans receive their benefits so they can keep a roof over their heads; the Department of Justice needs to help victims of elder abuse escape their abuser; and the Federal Trade Commission’s work to combat consumer scams needs support from legal aid providers who are often the victims’ first responders.
Thanks to the Roundtable, the Corporation for National and Community Service and Department of Justice teamed up to launch Elder Justice AmeriCorps, the first ever army of lawyers to help victims of elder abuse; Department of Labor-funded American Job Centers can offer legal help to remove obstacles to employment; the Department of Justice-Department of Housing and Urban Development Juvenile Reentry Assistance Program gets legal help to young adults in public housing to give them a second chance to succeed; and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families program helps ensure homeless veterans get the legal aid they need to get into stable housing.
Studies have shown time and again that legal aid makes a difference. Representation in housing cases increases the chance a family stays in their home; domestic abuse victims are more likely to break the cycle of violence when they have legal help; and people with criminal records are more likely to find employment if a lawyer gets their old record expunged.
Just as it’s wise to plug up a leaky roof before water seeps into the walls and causes extensive damage, civil legal aid saves public dollars by preventing problems that can be costly and harmful. For example, studies show that legal aid can improve health outcomes and drive down healthcare costs, and accelerate children’s transition from foster care to a forever family, reducing direct payments to foster parents and the expense of monitoring them.
We’re at the end of an administration that has fought to ensure Americans have access to justice and to get the best results possible for the low-income and other vulnerable people we serve. Although much has been accomplished, we must continue to expand access to civil legal aid and enhance the quality of life for all families and communities.
Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.