High Lifetime Chance of Being Poor Suggests a New Legal Aid/ATJ Funding Argument

For decades we have been struggling with the fact that we think that many, perhaps most, people are resultant to fund legal aid, and particularly means-tested community-based legal aid because they think that it will never help them. (Incidentally, every article on how few people are helped by legal aid probably increases that perception, and so may  be courter-productive.)

A new study of the chances of being in poverty over the long term may upend our strategies for dealing with this.  As reported in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, a study going back to 1968 shows that in fact:

By the time they’re 60 years old, [University of Washington Sociologist Mark] Rank has found, nearly four in five people experience some kind of economic hardship: They’ve gone through a spell of unemployment, or spent time relying on a government program for the poor like food stamps, or lived at least one year in poverty or very close to it.

So, by age 60, 45% have received some form of public assistance, 67% have experienced a period of extended unemployment, and 54% lived near or below the poverty line.

Indeed by age 60, 62% of people will have been in the bottom 20% and 42% will have been in the bottom 10% of the income distribution for at least a year.

Here is a graph showing the increasing numbers as one ages (distributed under Common Commons License, © 2015 Rank, Hirschl).  (The full two-author study that gives this chart is here.)poverty-1 year by age

Legal Aid, even means tested community-based Legal Aid, is a majority-serving program, and we have to start thinking about, and talking about it as such.

So, we obviously need this research to be tweaked to show the percentage who have been community-based legal aid eligible at some point in their lives.

Till recently, the communications strategy — wise and fair — has been to combine means-tested community-based legal aid and non-means-tested court-based (and some other) and make the argument that legal aid as a whole is available to all.

These numbers make possible a far more appealing argument — that parts of the legal aid service system are available to all, and that almost two thirds of people are at some point in their lives eligible for the type of services targeted for those most in need.  (Actually, given that senior legal aid is not means-tested, there is an even broader argument that 100% are eligible at some point in their lives, but I think the non-senior argument feels more honest and more credible.)  So, you can imagine a message/ad like — Most Americans are eligible for legal aid at some point in our lives — and that is a really good thing because the program ……  Indeed, in talking to people about legal aid, we might ask them to think back to when their income was low, and the challenges they faced.

So, lets get the research tweaked, and start using it.  Any ideas on how to make the research even better, or how to tweak the message?


About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Budget Issues, Communications Strategy, Legal Aid, Political Support, Poverty. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to High Lifetime Chance of Being Poor Suggests a New Legal Aid/ATJ Funding Argument

  1. I was truly surprised by the high percentage of individuals that face, what I imagine to be, some type of considerable economic hardship. I was equally surprised as well as by the high percentages of persons that would spend time in the lowest quintile of income. While I’ve some trends like this middle income countries with which I work at the World Bank, I was not expecting this from the US.

    This clearly does lend strength to the argument for legal aid, and maybe even particularly for civil legal aid. And I like the storyline you suggest of ‘Most Americans will be eligible for legal aid at some point in their lives’. I think this would equally be a good time to think about targeting legal aid services to those that go in and out of poverty. Do they have special needs? Are they more likely to experience certain legal problems? How do these problems push them into poverty? And how to target services to those not in poverty, but vulnerable to it? If we could mine the data further to answer part of these questions, it would be a step forward.

  2. Soren Rasmussen says:

    It is clear that the message that will win over the larger public and politicians is one that is more inclusive and focus on most Americans. If I could eliminate one word from advocates vocabulary it would be “poor”. That’s my personal view rooted in the fact that several studies have shown that people, even those living around the poverty line, will not identify as poor and I am not convinced that you could ever persuade enough people to identify as poor.

    Instead, and as other of the posts have alluded to, talking about experiences and situations are easier to identify with. And so talking about people who are living paycheck to paycheck, people who do not have the savings to hire an attorney if they needed it, a father or a mother struggling to put food on the table, would be a better way in my opinion. At the same time, with inequality being a bi-partisan issue right now, framing civil legal aid as a crucial tool to combat inequality and make sure that people don’t spiral downward to an insolvable when they experience economic hardship is another way of thinking about it.

  3. James Burdick says:

    Improved access to justice has a lot in common with how expansion of U.S. health care coverage, education, and many other supports may help those in poverty.
    First, it is important to emphasize that the graph depicts an increasing likelihood of being poor or desperately poor at some point, which is a cumulative increase. But it is not a cumulative increase in the sense of the total numbers of poor at any given time since there is a churn in and out of poverty. As an expert I talked with put it: “In any given year 40% of the people who are below the poverty line annually won’t be there two years later, they’ll be above the poverty line.” This is another way of describing the churn that suggests that help when down and out can be successful to help people who are just making it marginally get out of poverty faster and decrease the likelihood of their returning to poverty status.
    Second, the available evidence confirms that the social support does indeed better the situation for the disadvantaged. Growing up when food stamps are available improves high school graduation rates, decreases metabolic illness and lowers incidence of obesity. Those who use housing vouchers to settle in a better neighborhood have improved life earnings compared with those who do not.
    So as with help for access to health care, legal help is needed on occasion by a much larger proportion of people than the incidence of poverty at a single time point suggests. Moreover, since housing, education, and health care are all interdependent it seems that increased access to justice when people are faced with legal troubles can be added to the mix and will aid in strengthening the success of all supports to the economically and racially disadvantaged.

  4. This is an attractive idea. It’s like the civil liberties pitch that asks “who will stand up when they come for you?” It’s got the appeal to people above the poverty line that we’ve often looked for and rarely brought off successfully. Here’s how it might read. Try it on for size.

    Are you poor this month? Needing a little help with food stamps, or a lot of help with medicaid? Or was it this time four years ago that your family was just scraping by, relying on unemployment insurance and dwindling savings? Was it toughest when your first child came, or you couldn’t find a job? Or will your time of need come when you go through a divorce, or when you are 70, relying on social security and medicare and running short each month?

    Studies of the lives of average Americans reveal that most of us (75% or more) spend at least little parts of our lives in poverty. Other studies disclose that civil legal problems arise regularly in our lives, but particularly when we have the fewest resources for dealing with them by hiring a lawyer.

    When that happens, will Legal Aid be there for you? Or will you have to go it alone? Legal Aid turns away more than half of the people who seek assistance because the funding is too little. It’s actually worse than that, because a lot of people with legal problems know that a lot of what Legal Aid can afford to dispense is just advice, and that only the most dire cases will qualify for full representation by a lawyer.

    Do something about this now, while you are not poor. Support better funding for Legal Aid now, for those whose time in poverty is now, and to assure that a more robust Legal Aid will be there when your time comes, when you are in need, or your parent can’t afford a critical drug, or your neighbor is facing eviction or foreclosure, or the third-grader sitting next to your daughter is living with domestic violence.

    Do your part now. Remember, justice is everyone’s business.
    Would this work in a corporate appeal? In a pitch to philanthropists? Would it be more successful in fund raising than it has been in political rhetoric (we are the 99%)? Who mounts a broad-based appeal that reaches individuals for whom this concept would probably ring a bell? Is this more a policy argument making sense out of funding civil legal aid as a broadly-based program than a fund-raising argument for a mass appeal? What answers to what related research questions would turn libertarian voters toward more civil legal aid funding as an investment in future government benefits?

    Gerry Singsen
    July 27, 2015

  5. Lisa Rush says:

    How about instead of “most Americans” or “62 percent” say, “we.” Because all of us at some age need safety net.

  6. Claudia says:

    Great post. The poor are us–this data is great because it shows that poverty is not a us vs. them issue. It is an “us” issue.

    The poor are us. By age 60% most of us will have experienced economic hardship at least one time in our lifetime. For those of us who are people of color, the experience might come sooner in life and last longer.

    Inability to pay utilities, food, housing, and for basic necessities breaks up families, damage health, and lead to legal problems that create negative court and credit records that last for years. Making sure that those who are in need have access to legal assistance during the times when they need it the most is a way to protect American’s upward mobility. When people come out of poverty, they will be able come out with as little damage as possible. Going through a rough economic patch should not put people’s homes, survival (food, clothing, heating), families, safety and basic survival in danger.

    As more of us reach 60 years old and look forward to living 25 to 30 years more access to free legal assistance becomes a bare necessity. Otherwise, we will see a return to the 40s and 50s when the elderly were mostly poor and destitute before SSI and Medicare were created as a safety net. The safety net has to be protected and expanded for all.

  7. John Whitfield says:

    “At some point in their lives, most Americans will need free civil legal aid to deal with a critical legal problem that may turn their lives upside down if not properly addressed. Unfortunately, at current funding levels, most Americans aren’t able to get the legal help when they need it.”

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