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July 01, 2014


by Myles Lynk

This issue of Human Rights is devoted to the role that lawyers can play in alleviating poverty in America. It is the culmination of a year-long collaboration to address issues of poverty and inequality that the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities engaged in with the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, chaired by Antonia Fascinelli, with Amy Horton-Newell as ABA staff director. This year also saw the convening of a Convocation on Poverty at the 2014 Midyear Meeting by the Program and Planning Committee of the ABA Board of Governors. This Convocation will lead to renewed initiatives by the Association to address the burgeoning problems of poverty and inequality in America today.

As lawyers, we recognize that the ability of Americans, and of all peoples, to effectively exercise their civil liberties and human rights depends to a large extent on their economic security and well-being. For example, because we recognize the special obstacles that the poor face when confronted by the American legal and judicial systems, lawyers have developed ethical norms that encourage them to provide their professional services to poor clients on a pro bono publico basis free of charge; governments provide public funding for legal aid lawyers and public defenders; and the courts have developed rules that allow poor litigants to proceed in forma pauperis without having to pay court costs and fees.

Yet, while these and other steps are necessary to help ameliorate the effects of being poor on those involved in a legal matter or proceeding, they do not necessarily help poor people escape from poverty. We therefore should ask ourselves whether lawyers can do more. We take pride in the fact that we live in a nation of laws and, as lawyers, it is at the very core of our professional roles that we help other Americans understand and apply those laws. Do we therefore have either an obligation or an opportunity to help the economically disadvantaged understand and utilize our system of laws to move out of poverty into a more stable, secure, and productive economic environment?

Some background might be helpful. The federal government’s definition of poverty is based on the total income a household receives, excluding in-kind contributions such as food stamps and health insurance. For 2014, the poverty level is set at $23,850 total yearly income for a family of four. Extreme poverty is calculated as families living on less than $2 per day. In 2011, 1.5 million American households, including 2.8 million children, lived in extreme poverty. In fact, in 2011 overall child poverty in the United States reached record levels, with 16.7 million children living in food-insecure households. A 2013 UNICEF report ranked the United States as having the second highest relative child poverty rate in the developed world.

The number of people living in poverty has increased in the United States over the past 70 years. In the late 1950s, the poverty rate for all Americans was 22.4 percent, or 39.5 million individuals. These numbers declined steadily throughout the1960s as a result of the war on poverty, reaching a low of 11.1 percent, or 22.9 million, individuals, in 1973. The poverty rate fluctuated at around this level throughout the 1970s, and then in 1980 it began a steady rise. It reached 35.3 million people, or 15.2 percent of the population, in 1983 and 39.3 million individuals by 1993.

The number of people living in poverty in 2009 approached the levels that led to the national war on poverty in the 1960s. Starting in the 1980s, relative poverty rates in the United States have consistently exceeded those of other developed countries. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.5 million Americans, or more than 16 percent of the population, lived in poverty, up from 14.3 percent (approximately 43.6 million) in 2009 and at its highest level since 1993.

U.S. Census figures for 2010 showed that about half of the people living in poverty are non-Hispanic whites (19.6 million), about 9.9 percent of all white persons in America. By comparison, 12.1 percent of all Asian persons, 26.6 percent of all Hispanic persons, and 28.4 percent of all African Americans lived in poverty in America.

These numbers are troubling, and even more so are the stories of the people that these numbers represent. In light of all of this, what can lawyers do? We explore this question in the following pages of this issue of Human Rights.

The distinguished Professor Peter Edelman of the Georgetown University Law Center and an adviser this year to IR&R and the Commission on Homelessness and Poverty has written a masterful article that introduces what the causes of poverty in America are today.

We also are thrilled to welcome an article by the leading progressive in American government today, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has written on the increasing economic squeeze faced by working families today and the need to use Social Security benefits and other programs to rebuild the “safety net” of public services, protecting the most vulnerable among us.

Next, Richard Rothstein, senior fellow of the Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California School of Law, has written an article that reminds us that as we consider issues of economic inequality in America, we should not forget the role that segregation and institutional racism played historically in the administration of federal programs designed to help the poor.

Professor Susan Jones, a distinguished professor of clinical law at The George Washington University School of Law, addresses head on the question of what lawyers can do now to alleviate poverty, in her exciting article on the rise of transactional legal clinics and the promotion of economic development opportunities for the poor by law schools and lawyers.

Professor Robin Runge of The George Washington University Law School addresses the crisis in rural America, where the poor have only limited access to the legal system, and what is being done to address the cost of legal services and increase the number of lawyers practicing in rural counties across America.

Alexander Wohl, a professor at American University Washington College of Law and Human Rights Editorial Board member, writes about people with disabilities living in poverty and the need for their civil and economic rights to be protected.

Opening up our perspective from the national to the global is the eminent Gay McDougall, McArthur Fellow and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Fordham University School of Law, who has written on tackling poverty and inequality on a global scale at the United Nations.

Finally, our Human Rights hero for this issue is Sister Simone Campbell, founder and directing attorney of the Community Law Center, leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” national tour in support of volunteer and federal safety net programs, and executive director of NETWORK.

Taken together, we hope these articles will fire your imagination and encourage you to work with your bar associations, courts, and law schools to expand our outreach to assist those whose economic circumstances make them vulnerable to injustice and victims of inequality.