Growing numbers of poor people swamp legal aid offices
By TONY PUGH
After years of funding shortfalls, legal aid societies across the country are being overwhelmed by growing numbers of poor and unemployed Americans who face eviction, foreclosure, bankruptcy and other legal problems tied to the recession.
The crush of new clients comes as the cash-strapped agencies cut staff and services.
The nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which funds more than 900 legal-aid offices nationwide, says that the number of people who qualify for assistance has jumped by about 11 million since 2007, because of the recession. Roughly 51 million people are now eligible for assistance - individuals and families who earn less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, now set at $27,564 a year for a family of four.
The federal government budgeted an 11 percent increase in funding for legal aid this year. That increase, however, is more than offset by the growing demand for services and a recession-driven decline in state funding, charitable gifts and grants, which together traditionally make up half of legal service funding.
That means that legal-aid programs will turn away roughly 1 million valid cases this year, advocates say, about half the requests for assistance they'll receive.
"The impact of the recession on the delivery system for civil legal aid has been dramatic with respect to those nonfederal funds," said Don Saunders, the director of the Civil Legal Services division of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
In Cleveland, where unemployment is 10 percent, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland has seen a 56 percent increase this year in employment cases, such as wage-and-hour disputes and the denial of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers.
The agency, which has 55 full-time lawyers and 1,400 volunteer lawyers, expects to handle more than 900 such cases this year and about 10,000 cases overall. However, it'll turn away some 14,000 other valid, income-eligible cases because it can't meet the demand.
"It's heartbreaking that we have to turn away so many clients," said Melanie Shakarian, the Cleveland agency's director of development. "We have a considerable amount of resources to help low-income people, but even with all that we have, we can't serve everyone who comes to us for help."
Middle-class people also have trouble affording legal help, but with fewer economic resources, the poor are more likely to find their money problems leading to court.
Legal aid offices typically handle cases involving divorces, child custody and a host of consumer issues that can include landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, applications for government benefits and battles with predatory lenders. They often represent battered women who need protection, women who are trying to obtain child support or families trying to secure insurance payments.
Each downward turn of the economy increases the need for services. During the first year of the recession in 2008, 93,000 people contacted the Cleveland agency for help. That was up 35 percent from the year before, Shakarian said. This year, the agency is on pace to get 100,000 calls for assistance. Of these, only about 10 percent will be served.
Nationally, experts estimate that 80 percent of low-income Americans who need legal help in civil cases don't receive any. That comprises "not only people who show up at the door and are turned away, which is a large number, but also those who don't even try because it's so hopeless," said Peter Edelman, who teaches poverty law at Georgetown University in Washington.