Preserve legal aid for poor
Published: Sunday, July 17, 2011
Updated: Sunday, July 17, 2011 16:07
In the current budget debate, there's one demographic that may suffer more than the rest of us: the poor.
A recent proposal by the House Appropriations Committee would slash the budget of the Legal Services Corporation back to 1999 levels, according to Mother Jones — an organization that has been around for four decades and supports 163 legal-aid outposts all over the United States.
The new proposal would take away $104 million from the program, which accounts for 26 percent of the program's resources, according to Mother Jones.
This move will not be helpful to anyone. The last thing the government needs to be doing is taking away from those that need help most in this bad economy. Legal-aid organizations are made up of volunteer attorneys who take up civil and criminal cases for those who cannot afford it.
One example is the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association. The primary mission of this organization is to "provide quality legal services for the low-income residents, the working poor, children and disadvantaged groups with special legal needs in Orange County, Florida," according to its website.
Many agencies are reporting that demand is soaring as their funds are decreasing. Cynthia Martinez, a spokeswoman for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said this is forcing their agency to turn people away who desperately need assistance, according to Mother Jones.
"Last year, we had to turn away half of the people that came to us because we just don't have the resources. And it's not like when we say no, the legal problems just go away," Martinez said.
The article quotes Nan Heald, executive director of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, who said that the end result of these budget cuts are that people who do actually manage to get help from legal aid are getting limited services rather than full representation. This is due to trying to meet the increasing demand with a smaller staff. Heald's agency has lost seven staffers since 2009, according to Mother Jones, and many forms of funding, such as state grants and individual donations, are dropping as well.
We are living in harsh economic times. The government has desperately been looking at every possible avenue to cut spending. Cutting spending for legal aid, however, can actually have a counterproductive effect.
According to Heald, housing a family in a homeless shelter in Maine is five to 10 times more expensive than funding a lawyer that can ensure that this family stays in stable housing.
If these cuts are implemented, the LSC estimates that 235,000 people who are eligible for assistance will be turned away, according to Mother Jones. Having this many people without proper legal representation and not being able to obtain stable housing could have a detrimental impact on our economy.
These are individuals who might have an opportunity to climb the economic ladder by obtaining this stability. This could mean increased tax receipts for federal, state and local governments. An investment in their needs could very well be an investment in our country.
Poverty is an issue that we should all be working to combat. Many people find themselves in poverty for a variety of reasons; they could have been laid off from a good job and found themselves upon hard times. People who depend on legal aid are not people looking for a handout; they are simply availing themselves of a service to which we all contribute through tax dollars. Funding this program should be an important priority for our federal government. Let's work to preserve legal aid.