We Need Fighters for the Poor -- Civil Legal Aid Can Help

In the most anticipated visit of a foreign leader to Congress in years, Pope Francis called for a fight against poverty. "[K]eep in mind," he said, "all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. . . . The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes."

The Pope's call for fighters against poverty comes at a time when the gap between our richest and poorest citizens has grown ever wider. The Census Bureau recently issued new poverty data showing that the nation's economic recovery has not lowered the number of our poor. The data has not statistically changed for four years despite a rebound in the stock market and lower unemployment.

The Pope is right. We do need fighters for the poor. We need fighters who will battle the injustices which pop up from every direction when a paycheck or disability payment does not cover the simple necessities of food, shelter, and transportation. We need fighters who stand for those experiencing domestic violence, for those cheated out of meager wages by predatory lenders, and for those who are elderly or who have disabilities and need accommodations to fully experience the opportunities of this great country.

Fortunately, on one of the fronts against poverty, we have fighters stationed in every community across America: the lawyers who work for nonprofit civil legal aid organizations. We represent low-income people in and out of court in civil legal disputes, and provide information so people can know their rights. Most of our cases make a difference for one person or one family at a time. But other legal aid cases transform our country for the better through legal decisions that go as high as the United States Supreme Court.

One of our recent clients was Tony Strickland. His arm turned black because he did not have the money to go to the doctor for a blood clot in his hand. He had money in the bank, but he could not access it. His account had been garnished. This happened in 2012 despite a federal law that protected his money from being garnished because it related to his disability. My colleagues at The Atlanta Legal Aid Society initiated a lawsuit on Tony's behalf. Just a few weeks ago, a federal judge ruled in the case. He declared the state's garnishment statute unconstitutional.

It defies belief how many schemes and businesses exist to squeeze money from our poorest citizens. When these schemes violate the law, an attorney is often needed to ensure a fair and just outcome; but citizens like Tony Strickland are not able to afford one. This is why throughout America, federal and state elected officials, as well as business, faith and community leaders, recognize the importance of civil legal aid.

Appointments at legal aid offices fill up quickly each day. Our clients come to us because they are experiencing family violence, foreclosures, divorces, consumer fraud, and countless other crises that seriously threaten their livelihoods, homes or health. Some are veterans. Others are seniors. All desperately need legal help.

Recently, I helped a young man with a disability. Michael* was turning 21. Birthdays are usually a cause for celebration, but, for Michael this one was a possible death sentence. He was aging out of the Medicaid program that provided a life-sustaining dietary formula needed to treat a genetic disorder that causes ammonia and other toxic substances to accumulate in his blood. I took his case and convinced the state to continue providing the formula he needed to stay alive.

Twenty years ago, my colleague and mentor brought a case on behalf of two women who were confined in a local mental health hospital even though their doctors said they could live in the community. As any of us would, they wanted to live in their own homes. That lawsuit went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That legal aid attorney's victory in the 1999 Olmstead case not only helped her two clients. It enables thousands of people with disabilities across the country to live in their communities instead of being unnecessarily and unjustly locked away.

Another of my colleagues, attorney Bill Brennan, saw the foreclosure crisis coming eight years before it sent our nation into recession. In 2000, he told Congress that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should not be allowed to enter the subprime market. "[A]ny downturn in the economy would result in a massive increase in foreclosures . . .." When that happens, he said, Fannie and Freddie may turn to Congress for a massive bailout. Bill was right. That is exactly what happened.

Bill Brennan was not a prophet. He simply saw what was happening to his low-income clients and understood the impact predatory lending would have on them and on the larger economy. He fought for a better outcome. This is what civil legal aid lawyers do.

With poverty levels stagnant, many more battles will be necessary to ensure fairness and justice for everyone, including the poor who Pope Francis called on our leaders to protect. For those battles requiring legal expertise, civil legal attorneys will continue the fight in your communities and mine.

*Not my client's real name.

Talley Wells is the Director of the Disability Integration Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and Co-Director of the Disability Law Project at IHDD at the University of Georgia. He is a former skipper on the world famous Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World.