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.)
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?