Despite Ongoing Budget Impasse, Progress Against Poverty in Illinois

John Bouman at a budget rally in SpringfieldGovernment, at all levels, has a critical role to play in securing justice and opportunity for people in poverty or otherwise at risk. So as Congress remains highly polarized and gridlocked, it is important to take advantage of opportunities for progress at the state level. This is where critical decisions affecting at risk populations increasingly are being made.

From afar, Illinois might not look like a shining example of a state picking up where the federal government has become incapacitated. After all, the state legislature and the governor are locked in a record-long budget impasse that is eroding the state’s social and human service infrastructure and, in the process, causing some our state’s most vulnerable citizens to suffer.

But despite the ongoing budget impasse and its devastating consequences, Illinois achieved many substantial anti-poverty victories during the most recent legislative session. This spring, the Shriver Center advocated for several bills in the Illinois General Assembly that will advance justice and improve opportunities for low-income people. When signed by the governor and enacted into law, each of these bills will help low-income individuals and families take one more step away from poverty.   

Protecting Domestic Workers. Domestic workers play a critical role in the Illinois economy.  They care for the elderly, clean homes, and nurture children, ensuring the health and prosperity of Illinois families and freeing others to work outside the home. Their work ultimately makes all other work possible. Despite the value of their work, domestic workers have historically been excluded from protections under laws extended to workers in other industries. This has led to a workforce, predominantly composed of women supporting their own families, that is isolated and vulnerable.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, HB 1288, establishes a definition for domestic work and extends worker protections to domestic workers, including the right to the state minimum wage, to be paid for all work hours, to one day of rest per week for workers that work for one employer more than 20 hours a week, and to protection from sexual harassment on the job. This bill, which will benefit an estimated 35,000 domestic workers in Illinois, will ensure that domestic workers are treated with the dignity they deserve.  

Providing a Lifeline to Victims of Human Trafficking. Victims of trafficking, torture, and other serious crimes desperately need a safe place to live, adequate food, immediate attention to their physical and mental health needs, and an opportunity to stabilize their lives as they cooperate with law enforcement, adjust their immigration status, and obtain work authorization. The current processing time for visas ranges from 5 to 16 months, leaving these immigrants vulnerable to further exploitation and harm.

The Shriver Center, in partnership with Heartland Alliance, advocated for SB 3007, which provides access to critical services for immigrant survivors of human trafficking while they await a decision on their visa applications. SB 3007 provides access to state-funded SNAP, cash assistance, and Medicaid for up to one year while the victim is preparing his or her visa or asylum application. SB 3007 has passed both houses of the legislature and awaits the Governor’s signature. The first program of its scope in the nation, this bill is expected to provide a lifeline to roughly 700 people annually.

Ensuring That Children Benefit from Child Support. Child support can be an important source of income for low-income families. However under current Illinois law, a family receiving cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program gets only $50 of a child support payment, no matter the amount the noncustodial parent actually pays. The rest of the child support payment is kept by the state and the federal government. SB 2340 will increase the amount that these families receive from child support payments paid by noncustodial parents to the maximum permitted by federal law. This will encourage on-time child support payments and let children see that both their parents are doing their best to care for them. Once signed into law, the changes will go into effect on January 1, 2017.  

Helping Cash Assistance Recipients Get the Education They Need. Although education is essential to moving people out of poverty, 35.9% of TANF recipients have less than a high school education. Most TANF recipients are required to engage in work activities at least 30 hours each week. But, under current law, obtaining a high school diploma or GED certificate is classified as a non-core activity for adults over 19 years of age. SB 2906 amends the Public Aid Code to add attendance in high school and GED programs to the set of activities that count as a core work requirement activity for TANF recipients. Once signed into law, this bill will allow the Illinois Department of Human Services and TANF recipients to prioritize these important activities and ensure that more recipients complete their high school educations.

Protecting Survivors of Domestic or Sexual Violence. Employees coping with sexual or domestic violence deserve to feel secure and safe in their employment, which is vital to their economic security. The Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA), originally enacted into law in 2003, established employment protections for survivors and their families. HB 4036 expands VESSA protections to all employees working in Illinois. Newly covered employees may take unpaid leave to seek medical attention, domestic violence or sexual assault services, counseling, legal assistance, and other activities needed to address the violence. Employers are also prohibited from discrimination based on an employee’s status as a survivor or a family or household member of a survivor. Once signed into law, the amendment would go into effect on January 1, 2017. 

Ensuring Consumers Can Make Informed Healthcare Decisions. The health care system can be confusing. Health care consumers need clear and accurate information so that they can make informed decisions about their health care. The Empowering Meaningful Choice in Medicaid Managed Care Act, HB 6213, ensures that Medicaid managed care consumers can access more up-to-date provider directories, see clear guides showing what drugs are and are not covered, compare plans by performance measures, and know who to call if they have problems getting care. HB 6213 has passed the House and Senate with unanimous support; a few amendments bringing technical changes need to be voted on before it's sent to the Governor for his signature.

Extending Health Coverage for Children. Children who have health coverage are more likely to have an ongoing relationship with a doctor, receive preventive care, early diagnosis, and treatment, and they have better health outcomes. In 2005, Illinois extended eligibility for public health insurance program to cover children from working poor families, including children who have no access to public or private insurance on the marketplace due to their immigration status. As of January 31, 2016, the Covering All Kids Health Insurance Act covered almost 41,000 children.

However, Covering All Kids was set to sunset on July 1, 2016. HB 5736, which passed both houses of the Illinois legislature, amends the law to extend coverage to October 1, 2019. This ensures that needy children will continue to have access to preventive and primary care and makes our communities healthier. 

Diverting Youth from the Juvenile Justice System. Seventy percent of youth arrested in the U.S. are living with a mental illness, and 50-70% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for a mental illness. Youths living with mental illness deserve opportunities for treatment in the community--not ineffective and costly entanglement with law enforcement and the juvenile justice system.

SB 320, the Opportunities for Youth Diversion Task Force Act, will bring policymakers, community advocacy groups, community-based service providers, health care systems, law enforcement, and juvenile justice partners together in a task force to review evidence-based best practices for diverting youth to appropriate community-based mental health services. The task force will prepare an action plan and make recommendations to the General Assembly and Governor that will increase the number of youth experiencing mental illness diverted away from the juvenile justice system.

Impasse Continues. Looming over all of that progress, however, is the ongoing state budget impasse. Thanks to Governor Rauner’s hostage taking, Illinois recently entered its second straight year without a budgetand now wears the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country without a budget for the current fiscal year.

The lack of a budget has caused widespread suffering in Illinois. The human and social service infrastructure is crumblingstaff are being laid off, programs are shutting down, and people are going without services. The impasse is effectively undermining Illinois’ ability to fight poverty, and our state is growing weaker as a result.   

While the impasse has taken a devastating human toll, it has also reaffirmed an important lesson on the critical, proactive role that government must play in a functioning society. If our other victories this session demonstrate the potential for state-level government action in the fight against poverty, then the budget impasse illustrates what can happen when state government fails in that pursuit. 

Shriver Center advocates, in collaboration with the Responsible Budget Coalition and other organizations, have been on the front-lines of fighting for a responsible budget that includes revenue necessary to fund vital services. We will continue that fight until the State of Illinois has a budget that demonstrates its commitment to fighting poverty and promoting prosperity. 


Justice = Love

The following spoken-word essay was delivered at the opening of the Shriver Center’s 2016 benefit on June 14, 2016, by Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, Community Justice Staff Attorney at the Shriver Center.

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

I would like to start this evening with words from a hero, who but not for his fearless compassion for humanity, we would not be here tonight celebrating the work of his legacy.

The most important thing that I know about living is love. Nothing surpasses the benefits received by a human being who makes compassion and love the objective of his or her life. For it is only by compassion and love that anyone fulfills successfully their own life’s journey. Nothing equals love.Sargent Shriver

Decades later the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has found something that does equate to loveJUSTICE. That is to say, when we as human beings make compassion and love the objective of our lives, we fight for justice. Justice not just for those who look like us, live near us, or share our same struggle, but for society as a whole. Because, in the words of Sargent Shriver, “the War on Poverty asks everyone to get in the fight.”

So we must ALL fight for justice when victims of trafficking do not have access to public benefits.

We must ALL fight for justice when there are barriers to quality and affordable housing.

We must ALL fight for justice when women are still denied equal pay, and WE MUST ALL fight for justice when race, gender and LGBT status become the basis of hate.

Here at the Shriver Center we fight for all of these things because we believe that justice is not a limited fund account and love is not a budgeted expense.

The only thing that limits our access to the bank of justice in this country is hate, greed, and apathy, they are the bank tellers. That is why when we collectively fight for justice and equality, we are not crying for a handout for the people we help, instead we are demanding the funds in their account, the account of basic human rights. And that is why we fight with them.

We fight with them because fighting with them is fighting for society.

Fighting with them is fighting for the creed of our constitution, though not crafted with many of us in mind; we are all nonetheless entitled to its promises.

We fight with them because fighting with them is fighting for Love, the foundation of humanity, without which we cannot stand.

So tonight I hope we can all revel in the power of love and the work it inspires us to do! We must remember that gender and racial justice do not belong to one side of the aisle; instead it should be the aisle, the area of space that we share and have in common because love does not have a political party. Love is what transcribed the document that consummated the marriage of this country’s union. All men are created equal. Those are our vows to each other. We must continuously strive to live by those vows. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to, “Stick with love, because hate is too great a burden to bear.”

So tonight I ask you all to do two very important things:

  1. Stick with love, because it is the path to justice, and
  2. Walk this path, with this organization, this country, and most importantly humanity.

More than 500 supporters gathered at the Shriver Center’s 2016 annual benefit to celebrate the impact we’ve had on policies that create better opportunities for people living in poverty. We were proud to honor John G. Levi and Martha Minow with the Sargent Shriver Equal Justice Award for their outstanding contributions to social justice. Watch our video to learn more about our work and how you can join us in the movement to create a just society. 




A Remedy for Workers in Chicago: Paid Sick Leave Ordinance Heads to City Council

Workers who are sick should stay home from work. And if their children are sick, they should keep them home from school. Workers should not have to choose between their paycheck and their own health or that of a family member. Unfortunately, 42% of the private workforce in Chicago—just over 460,000 workers—are unable to access a single paid sick day, and are forced to make these impossible decisions.

Lack of access to paid sick time is an epidemic plaguing workers throughout the entire labor market, but it’s most prevalent among those paid low wages — those least able to afford missing out on even one day of pay. Nearly 8 in 10 workers in Chicago who earn less than $20,000 annually are unable to earn paid sick leave. For these workers, especially those supporting a family, a single sick day can be disastrous. Take low-income working mothers: two thirds lose wages when they must care for a sick child, and nearly one in five have lost a job due to sickness or caring for a family member.

Limited access to paid sick leave doesn’t only undermine the well being of workers and their families; it’s also a public health liability and a drag on the economy.

Paid sick days are especially uncommon in occupations that require frequent engagement with the public. Over 3 in 4 of the workers preparing food in Chicago, for example, lack access to paid sick days. No one wants to work while sick, but these workers have no other choice — and are forced to expose other workers and consumers to potential illness as a result. The consequences can be widespread: a study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AMJPH) found that lack of paid sick days contributed to an additional 5 million cases of influenza-like illness in the United States during the flu pandemic of 2009.

Businesses aren’t immune to the consequences of a no earned sick time policy, either. When workers show up to work sick, they often aren’t able to operate at full productivity. This phenomenon — known as “presenteesim” — costs American businesses $160 billion annually.

Recognizing the threats posed to the City of Chicago by limited access to paid sick leave, Aldermen Proco Jo Moreno, Toni Foulkes, and Ameya Pawar have offered up a remedy — an ordinance that would bring paid sick leave to all workers who work in Chicago. The ordinance would allow employees to earn one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked, up to 5 full work days in a 12-month period. Workers would also be able to carry half of any unused sick time — up to 20 hours — into a subsequent year. The ordinance applies to business of all sizes and to employees who have worked for an employer for 80 hours within any 120-day period.

Chicago residents, like Aldermen Moreno, Foulkes, and Pawar, have also recognized the importance of bringing paid sick days to all the city’s workers. In a non-binding referendum in 2015, 82% of Chicagoans who cast ballots voted in favor of allowing all employees to earn paid sick time.

If the voices of Chicagoans are heard and the ordinance is passed by the City Council, Chicago will join more than 20 other cities and 5 states that are benefiting from paid sick leave. After instituting its groundbreaking paid sick leave ordinance in 2007, San Francisco, for example, saw increases in job and business growth compared to 5 neighboring counties. In a survey conducted 3 years following implementation, over half of all workers in the San Francisco reported experiencing benefits, and two thirds of employers expressed support for the ordinance.

Everyone gets sick, and it’s a universally unpleasant experience. But falling ill shouldn’t derail one’s financial stability. A family shouldn’t lose food off the table because of a head cold; a working mother shouldn’t lose her job because her child caught the flu. Alderman Pawar has referred to paid sick leave as “just a baseline of decency.” We agree. The Chicago City Council should pass the paid sick leave ordinance. It’s good for workers. It’s good for business. It’s good for Chicago.

The ordinance is expected to be voted on by the Chicago City Council on Wednesday, June 22. Please contact your Alderman today and urge him or her to support the paid sick leave ordinance


The Truth About Marketplace Health Plan Rates

You may have heard stories about dramatic increases in private health insurance rates since the implementation of health reform. Although Illinois insurance carriers recently sent preliminary 2017 rates to regulatory authorities, we likely won’t know what the final prices and plans for next year look like until closer to the beginning of open enrollment. But we already know that misinformation about increased rates is being hyped by the media.

Fingers crossed behind backThis is a lie about Obamacare plans that we’ve heard before. What stories about these proposed rate filings often miss is that, even if premiums go up, financial assistance (through tax credits) to help pay for those premium increases as well. Simply put, the majority of consumers in the Marketplace won’t feel the premium price increases that the media often focuses on.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proves the point. The report found that, last year, the average cost of Marketplace coverage for people getting tax credits went from $102 to $106 per month—a modest increase, especially when you think about how costs for everything tend to rise.

In Illinois, 75% of Marketplace consumers receive tax credits based on their income. By design, tax credits increase if the cost of the benchmark plan (the second lowest-cost silver plan) goes up. So if all premiums in a market go up by similar amounts, consumers who get tax credits will not necessarily pay more, because their tax credits will go up to compensate.

In addition, if a Marketplace consumer isn’t happy with his or her current plan—either because the premium went up or for another reason—the consumer has the ability to, and in fact is encouraged to, come back and shop around. According to HHS, nearly 50% of returning consumers selected a new plan for 2016. In Illinois, that number was greater than 50%, and those consumers saved an average of $636 annually.

The stories we keep seeing about big rate increases happen only in a world that doesn’t exist. As the HHS report notes, “the average premium changes reported in insurers’ rate announcements assume a scenario in which no consumer leaves the Marketplace, no new consumers enroll, nobody switches plans, no new plans are offered, and no one receives tax credits.” We know from the past three years of Marketplace experience, these assumptions do not reflect reality. Beyond the fact that the majority of Marketplace customers receive tax credits, we know that consumers whose income or job situation changes will move between the Marketplace and employer-subsidized plans or Medicaid. Moreover, for better or for worse, the Marketplace is robust with choices (the number of plans in Illinois increased from 410 choices in 2015 to 480 choices in 2016) so people will often “vote with their pocketbook” and switch plans.

Of course any increase in premium prices for Marketplace consumers will be a hardship to many. Moreover, out-of-pocket costs (like high deductibles) continue to concern Illinois consumers. However, it’s important to step back and remember that before the Affordable Care Act, affordable, quality health care was completely out of reach for many consumers—for example the millions of people with pre-existing conditions. And for many more, health care plans excluded important services like maternity care or mental health treatment.

Now, Illinois consumers have the option to purchase quality health plans and have the financial assistance to help pay for them. The media need to acknowledge the immense benefits of these tax credits, if they are going to responsibly report on premiums.

The Justice-Involved Are Key to Justice Reform

The 70 million justice-involved Americans—individuals with arrest or criminal records who have been socially, politically, and economically starved by our failing criminal justice system—deserve a seat at the table where justice reform is being discussed. Their anecdotal experiences, combined with data, serve to illustrate the systematic failures of our criminal justice system and the collateral consequences that create barriers to employment, housing, and public benefits. Their voices have an important potential to impact policy.

Woman studying at libraryHigher education is an important area for reform. The U.S. Department of Education’s recently released report, Beyond the Box, Increasing Access to Higher Education for Justice-Involved Individuals, describes college and university policies and practices that have limited access of the justice-involved to higher education. The report noted the importance of campus safety, which is vital given the rise of sexual assault on college campuses, while also ensuring that blanket criminal background policies do not discourage qualified candidates from applying in the first place. The report includes many recommendations, options, and examples of current commended practices at schools, including:

  • Delaying the request for, or consideration of, criminal justice information collected until after an admission decision has been made;
  • Giving students the opportunity to explain their criminal justice involvement and preparedness for postsecondary study;
  • Offering targeted academic and career guidance to students with past justice involvement; and
  • Using on-campus employment opportunities to help formerly incarcerated individuals create an employment history.

Removing barriers to higher education for our justice-involved population has the potential to enrich the classroom experience, as these students “are able to bring a unique perspective to classroom discussion with their peers.” Moreover, professions that require a college degree can benefit from having justice-involved individuals, who have personal and practical knowledge of the criminal justice system, in their workforce. For example, as teachers and counselors justice-involved individuals can provide insight on how to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. As attorneys, justice-involved individuals have the potential to represent people whose shoes they’ve walked in, and to inform the legal community of the pitfalls of criminal statutes and procedure.

States such as Ohio have already acknowledged the importance of incorporating the voices of justice-involved individuals in their criminal justice reform efforts. House Bill 130 called for the formation of an Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition that serves as a guiding hub for expanding and improving reentry efforts across state and local agencies and communities. The bill requires the coalition to have a member that has been convicted of one or more felonies or misdemeanors in Ohio, and be “willing to share the challenges or barriers that have occurred as a result.” Only when we listen to the challenges and barriers faced by justice-involved individuals can their experiences be elevated into effective policies.

The Department of Education’s recommendations would help justice-involved individuals move into professions that place them at the table of justice reform. Institutions of higher education should step up and pull out their chair by implementing these recommendations. By removing barriers to education for the justice-involved, we remove barriers to justice reform. 


More Americans Live on Less

If you stopped at Starbucks for a cup of coffee on your way in to work today, you have already spent more than what many in the United States subsist on for an entire day. Some level of extreme deprivation has always existed in America — but, in the past two decades, the number of people in its grip has exploded. 

This — the steep rise of extreme poverty, particularly among households with children — was the topic of a panel discussion at the Harold Washington Library here in Chicago recently. The event’s featured speaker was Kathryn Edin, a sociologist and one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers. She spoke about her and Luke Shafer’s recently published best seller, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America — a mix of sociology and storytelling that puts faces to the millions of Americans who live on virtually no income.

$2 billsAs Edin explained, her and Shafer’s book reveals a troubling trend. Since the late 1990s, the share of Americans living below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) has fluctuated between roughly 11% and 15% of the population. But within that group, an increasing number of households are living in what Edin and Shafer define as “extreme poverty.” In 1996, about 636,000 households subsisted on less than $2 per person, per day, in income. By 2011, that number had ballooned to 1.5 million — a 160% increase.

Why the dramatic growth? Edin and Shafer show — both in their book and elsewhere — that it can be traced back to sharp reductions in cash assistance imposed by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) — popularly known as welfare reform. Passed in 1996, welfare reform replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a federally regulated cash benefit program, with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a block grant given to each state to operate their own programs. Along with giving states more flexibility — states can use federal block grant dollars to pay for a wide array of things other than basic cash assistance — it also imposed strict work requirements and time limits on aid. The reform, in effect, put an “end to welfare as we know it.”

Although the purported goal of welfare reform was to boost labor force participation, research shows that welfare reform, over time, has failed on this front. There simply aren’t enough jobs, let alone decent-paying jobs, at the bottom of the labor market to go around. So instead, it has resulted in cutting off millions of our nation’s most at risk people from a much-needed lifeline. In 1996, 68 out of every 100 poor families with children received cash benefits; by 2013, that number had fallen to 23. In a handful of states, as few as 7 out of every 100 poor families with children now receive assistance.

To be sure, the cash benefits provided in the pre-reform era weren’t enough to cover the cost of living — and families still struggled to get by — but the assistance at least provided a subsistence level of support. Now, left without a reliable safety net to fall back on, many individuals resort to precarious ways of trying to make ends meet — methods that Edin and Shafer call “survival strategies.” They donate blood plasma multiple times per week. They collect and sell discounted metal. They move into crowded and unsafe living conditions.  

Despite their persistence and resourcefulness, most are unable make it out of extreme poverty. And the harsh circumstances exact a sharp toll. Edin and Shafer didn’t conduct research on the health consequences of $2-a-day poverty, but they introduce us to families who go without food for stretches of several days, and to women and children who regularly experience physical and sexual abuse. A few individuals express a desire to die.

By shedding light on the real-life suffering caused by welfare reform, Edin and Shafer’s work has forcefully reaffirmed an important lesson: the existence and severity of American poverty are direct results of public policy decisions. Poverty persists in our country because we choose to allow it to. Failing to provide an adequate safety net is a decision we make — one driven by the same amount of agency, and carrying the same amount of culpability, as a decision to intervene proactively.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.


Liberty Life Denies Long Term Disability Benefits to Walmart Employee in Kentucky

In Owens v. Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston (Liberty Life), plaintiff Paulette Owens quit her job at Walmart when physical restrictions prevented her from working. This opinion does not provide a job description nor mention her specific disability other than saying she quit work when “physical restrictions and limitations” prevented her from working. She was granted long term disability benefits, but one year later, her benefits were terminated. She exhausted her administrative appeals and then filed this ERISA lawsuit.

The main issue presented in this court action concerned the standard of review the court should use in evaluating plaintiff’s claim. Language in the policy gave the Liberty Life plan administrator discretionary review, yet Arkansas law invalidated such policy language for all policies issued after March 1, 2013. Two sub-issues were raised: 1) Did the new law apply to this particular policy; and 2) Did the Liberty Life Plan Administrator exercise that discretion or contract it out.

The New Arkansas Law Did Not Apply to this Policy

The first issue was whether the court should evaluate the termination of benefits under the arbitrary and capricious standard, which requires the court to give high deference to the decision of the plan administrator, or the de novo standard, which gives no deference at all to the plan administrator’s decision. Language in the policy granted Liberty Life “sole discretion…to determine benefit eligibility.”

The policy also stated that “Liberty reserves the right to determine if your Proof of loss is satisfactory.” This language means the court would use the arbitrary and capricious standard of review. Meanwhile, the Arkansas Legislature changed the law and invalidated such clauses effective for policies issued on or after March 1, 2013. Since the plaintiff became disabled in April 2013 under a policy that was issued on July 23, 2012, the new law did not apply. Thus, Liberty’s termination of plaintiff’s disability benefits would be reviewed according to the arbitrary and capricious standard.

Liberty Life Exercised Discretion and did not Rely on Liberty Mutual

The plaintiff argued that, contrary to policy language, Liberty Life delegated its duty to exercise discretion to contract employees from Liberty Mutual. She alleged that these employees were not “the plan administrator” and have not been “delegated discretionary authority.” Liberty Life claimed that all Liberty Mutual did was provide employees to Liberty Life, for which Liberty Life reimbursed Liberty Mutual.

Following a detailed analysis of the relationship between Liberty Life and Liberty Mutual, the court determined “that the ultimate benefit determination as made by Liberty Life.” The court concluded that based on all of its analysis, “the appropriate standard of review of this matter is the arbitrary and capricious standard.”

This case was not handled by our office, but we feel it can be instructive to someone who may have similar language in a disability policy and live in a state that has made such discretionary clauses unacceptable. As in this case, the date of the policy may be crucial in determining the standard of review a court will use in evaluating a termination or denial of benefits. If you have questions about any aspect of your disability claim, contact one of our attorneys for a free case evaluation.

The Path to Equal Justice

For almost 100 years, the American Bar Association (ABA) has partnered with charitable and publicly funded efforts to provide legal services for the poor. 

Path through the woodsIn 1919, Reginald Heber Smith, a practitioner in a legal aid charity, argued that it was the duty of the law profession to ensure access to justice for everyone regardless of income. In his seminal book, Justice and the Poor, Smith asserted that, where the law caused injustice or unfairness to low-income clients, this duty included vigorous attempts to reform the law itself.

Smith had crucial allies among America’s top lawyers, including Charles Evans Hughes, a statesman, lawyer, and Supreme Court Justice. At its 1920 convention, Hughes engineered the ABA’s endorsement of legal services for all and the creation of a the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, or SCLAID, a committee that exists to this day.

In 1967, as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver added legal services as a service provided to low-income communities through the Community Action Program. The ABA, through its then-president, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, was a key ally in moving the legal services component of the War on Poverty through Congress.

Hearkening back to Reginald Heber Smith’s model, Shriver endorsed the notion that representation should include policy-type work, then known as “law reform.”  This was consistent with Shriver’s belief people in poor communities should be given tools to create their own paths out of poverty, not handouts.    

Landlords, investors, bankers, employers—virtually every interest group is represented in debate over policies and budgets that implicate the interests of low-income people. The lone exception, until the War on Poverty, was people in poverty themselves. Through legal services, low-income people got a seat at the table and began to win or influence some of these debates. The process was fairer, and the concept of equal justice was more complete.

Not surprisingly, the very success of this model also brought constant pressure from opposing interests to terminate or constrain it. Consistent support from the ABA thwarted efforts to terminate the legal services program, but in 1996 Congress severely restricted the ability of lawyers in frontline programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation to engage in many types of policy work in legislatures, administrative agencies, and the courts.

Since then, efforts to provide legal representation to low-income people on policy and budget debates have been funded privately, mostly by foundations and donors. Lawyers and law firms in private practice have become key leaders. They serve as board members and contributors to legal services providers. And they are pro bono co-counsel in high-impact “law reform” litigation that nonprofit legal aid organizations, standing alone, might not have the resources to undertake. 

The Shriver Center, where I work, arose in response to that 1996 crisis. Today, the Shriver Center also leads a network of state-focused law and policy organizations working in 32 states and the District of Columbia – the Legal Impact Network. Although all of these organizations have an impressive record of legal and policy advocacy victories on behalf of low-income people, some of the network’s members have very small staffs, all of them are under-funded, and all need support

Today, the ABA continues its support of the movement to ensure justice for the poor. This week, key players in the civil justice system, including advocates, pro bono providers, and bar leaders, will gather in Chicago at the Equal Justice Conference, a joint effort of the ABA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Much of the focus at this year’s conference will be on efforts to ensure that everyone who needs an attorney can find and afford one.

Beyond access to justice, ongoing efforts by the ABA and others to support programs that provide policy and systemic advocacy for low-income clients are more important than ever. It is only with the robust participation of lawyers in every state—as board members, donors, and pro bono partners—that we may obtain the fullest measure of equal justice for poor clients.   

State Policymakers Battle over Doctrine While Real People Suffer

Toy SoldiersIt is the job of every state policymaker to consider and enact laws and policies that serve the greater good of their constituents. Yet earlier this week a New York Times editorial called out Illinois and Kansas as the leading examples of states where policymakers are doing harm instead of good. Illinois is in a record ten-month budget impasse that is eroding much of its educational and social services systems. Kansas, for its part, has deliberately blown up its revenue system, and thus also its schools and social services infrastructure. 

Governor Brownback has led Kansas into implementing the longtime dream of conservative free market zealots—lower state taxes that will supposedly stimulate business activity, which will in turn increase  state tax revenue. (George H.W. Bush called this “voodoo economics” when he was running against Ronald Reagan.) This economic theory has never succeeded in practice. Sure enough, Kansas is no exception. Reality has stubbornly rejected the doctrine, and Kansas is a mess. Governor Brownback’s Republican allies are increasingly restless as their districts suffer.

Governor Rauner’s approach has been a bit different. He argues that his policy agenda of eroding protections for workers and weakening organized labor will produce a business boom. And he asserts that this boom will drive an increase in state revenues to replace the lost income taxes he insisted on allowing to sunset. He has steadfastly demanded that Democrats enact his anti-labor agenda before he will negotiate with them on needed new state revenues. 

It is not clear whether Governor Rauner, like Governor Brownback, intends to damage the state’s social services infrastructure or whether he regards it as a regrettable but acceptable price to pay for forcing passage of his policy agenda. In either case, at this point, ten months into the budget impasse, Illinois is damaging its systems by default much as Kansas is damaging its systems apparently on purpose.            

Last week Illinois passed stopgap funding for its universities and two- and four-year colleges and their students, and Governor Rauner signed it. So Illinois has temporarily dodged that bullet, and perhaps the agreement on this legislation is a sign of progress towards a responsible budget. 

But there is much more damage being done. In January, the United Way of Illinois (UWI) surveyed 444 social service providers throughout Illinois that rely on state funding, and nearly half of the agencies surveyed reported that they had to make cuts because of the impasse. Of those that were forced to make cuts, an overwhelming majority—85%—had to do so by scaling back on the number of clients they serve. For example, as of March, at least 3,200 homebound seniors had lost home-delivered hot meals statewide.

Service agencies have been forced to lay off many of their experienced and talented staff, perhaps never to get them back. Earlier this year, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI)—the largest social service provider in the state—announced it would cut 750 jobs, 43% of its workforce. All 29 agencies serving sexual assault survivors in Illinois have either instituted furloughs or left unfilled positions vacant—leaving survivors throughout the state without the services that are essential for their well-being. And at least 18 Teen REACH programs—which mentor, tutor and provide a safe place for at-risk children after school—have closed. Thousands of at-risk children and their families have thus lost critical after-school programming.

Much of this is permanent damage, not easily or perhaps ever remedied by an end to the budget impasse. Once a program has been dismantled—its staff reduced, its relationships with clients deteriorated, its sites closed, its cash reserves exhausted—it is incredibly difficult, expensive, and perhaps impossible to put it back together. And this can be said more broadly of the social service delivery system in Illinois; even once full funding has been restored, the State of Illinois won’t be able to simply flip a switch and return to business as usual.

Whether or not Governor Rauner intends it, whether or not he is as ideological as Governor Brownback, the emerging reality is that much damage is already done. Soon the question of whether Governor Rauner merely assigns a very low value to vital social services programs or is actively hostile to them will be solely academic. 


Tenants’ Right to Organize in HUD-Assisted Housing Must Be Enforced

Crowd of peopleThe right to organize to improve your community is a fundamental hallmark of American life.  Yet low-income tenants who live in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-assisted properties, and the community organizers who seek to empower them, often face harassment and retaliation for attempting to organize to improve their housing.

Often working in tandem with community organizers, residents of HUD-assisted housing come together to form associations that represent the interests of all tenants in the housing development. Tenant associations play an important role in ensuring that resident voices are included in decision making made about the long-term affordability and quality of their homes.

Unfortunately, too frequently, property owners and managers do not respect tenants’ right to organize. In Texas, community organizers have been threatened with arrest for meeting with tenants on the property. In Michigan, a retaliatory fee was levied for use of the community room because lawyers and organizers sought to use it to work with tenants. In Illinois, a property manager refused to allow tenants to hold a tenant association election.

Perhaps most egregiously, in New York City, a large property management company proudly proclaims its policy of attempting to defuse tenant organizations by “discourag[ing] tenants from organizing into action groups” and ensuring that “such situations are identified early and the leaders are spoken to individually and at length.” This policy calls into serious question the management company’s compliance with, and respect for, HUD’s regulations, which provide for strong tenant participation rights. Yet, even when this blatant policy was brought to HUD’s attention, the online posting—and the property management’s ability to continue to operate in this fashion—remains unaddressed.

HUD regulations, at 24 C.F.R. part 245, recognize the importance of tenant participation in creating and maintaining good living environments. HUD requires owners and property managers to recognize tenant associations and organizing committees and to not interfere with any actions reasonably related to the creation or operation of a tenant association. The regulations specifically allow tenants to conduct protected activities, including canvassing, distributing flyers, and holding on-site tenant meetings without management interference. These protections extend to non-tenant community organizers, as well.

HUD recently published a notice that explains the procedure that HUD officials are supposed to follow when a violation of the right to organize is brought to their attention, including the imposition of sanctions when an investigation shows that tenants’ rights are being interfered with. Yet, HUD has never issued a notice of violation to an owner despite serious and widespread violations, allowing owners to violate the regulations with impunity.

While this is a longstanding issue, a recent HUD-funded program that partners lawyers with community organizers has increased awareness of violations of the right to organize and resulted in more complaints to HUD. The program provides legal and community organizing support to tenant associations to preserve, improve, and maintain their housing. Along with the National Housing Law Project, the Shriver Center has sent a letter to HUD illustrating the variety of violations throughout the country and including recommendations for how to protect the right to organize.

HUD must protect tenants’ right to organize and participate in protected tenant association activities. When owners and management threaten tenants with eviction, threaten community organizers with arrest, and deny access to on-site meeting space, these actions weaken the organizing effort at the building. Too often, when faced with retaliatory actions by management, tenants are afraid to participate because they are fearful of losing their homes. Until HUD begins to hold owners accountable, the right to organize and participate in many HUD-funded multifamily housing developments will remain elusive.