Legal aid fights Ga. poverty


I went to law school with a vision of making a difference in the world. Those were the heady days of demonstrations and organizations, of picketing and protesting — the days when we watched the rule of law sustain our democracy. A peaceful departure of a disgraced president, a world leader’s relinquishment of power, showed Americans the strength of our democracy.

But my dream as a young law student hasn’t turned out quite like I’d hoped.

Poverty plagues us. In fact, we anticipate Georgia’s poverty rate will be higher than ever this year — and with it, access to justice is diminished. Two million Georgians live in poverty, including one in four of our children, up significantly from just seven years ago when it was one in five. Nearly a third of Georgians struggle to keep food on the table. Increasingly, more seniors go without heat or needed medicine. I’ve come to see that eliminating poverty is a truly complex undertaking, especially in Georgia, where the chances of escaping it are among the worst in the U.S.

Do I throw in the towel? No.

I also see the importance of civil legal aid in the fight against poverty. A quarter of Georgia’s population is eligible for legal assistance, yet lawyers outside Atlanta are scarce, as 70 percent work in the capital city. This gap makes funding legal aid critical to rural Georgians’ ability to seek justice, whether to fight an unlawful eviction, escape a violent situation and seek spousal support, obtain health care through Medicaid and Medicare, or protect access to affordable housing.

Such legal victories truly can make a difference. Legal advice can play a very real role helping an individual climb the economic ladder, often securing basic needs and protecting the stability needed to maintain these and advance further. Minnesota Judge Kevin Burke said it another way: “(A) good lawyer can mean the difference between sickness or health, oppression or liberty, fear or peace of mind.”

Most lawyers know this, or they wouldn’t do what they do. But those who offer civil legal aid to needy clients, many of whom work for non-profit law firms funded by the Legal Services Corporation, are being forced to turn away more and more low-income Americans seeking help. Congress is failing to provide the resources to offer needy clients the hand up that would help lift them out of poverty.

Federal funding that supports these lawyers has failed to keep up with inflation even as poverty grows. Since it was first funded by Congress in 1976, funding for legal aid through Legal Services has been cut by more than half, taking inflation into account. Meanwhile, Georgia’s poverty population continues to grow. While many Georgians are finding their way out of the Great Recession, there are too many for whom recovery remains a dream.

With civil legal aid, they might find that opportunity out of poverty. Without it, the dream dies.

Phyllis Holmen is executive director of the Georgia Legal Services Program.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Is Senate committee equipped to grasp Kavanaugh allegations?

For all their well-learned politesse, the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have scarcely been able to conceal their determination to get Christine Blasey Ford out of their hair. Ford is the last obstacle to confirming conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. And she’s a formidable one. She has alleged...
Opinion: The burden of proof for Kavanaugh

Last week, I wrote a column taking the view that conservatives supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court because they hope he will overturn Roe v. Wade should be willing to encourage his withdrawal if his accuser testifies credibly against him and the cloud over his nomination can’t be expeditiously cleared up. Even if...
Opinion: What the Times misses about poverty

It’s an affecting story. Matthew Desmond, writing in The New York Times Magazine, profiles Vanessa Solivan, a poor single mother raising three children. Vanessa works as a home health aide, yet she and her three adolescent children are often reduced to sleeping in her car, a 2004 Chrysler Pacifica. In the morning, she takes her two daughters...
Opinion: Days of fear, years of obstruction

Lehman Bros. failed 10 years ago. The U.S. economy was already in a recession, but Lehman’s fall and the chaos that followed sent it off a cliff: Six and a half million jobs would be lost during the next year. We didn’t experience a full replay of the Great Depression, and some have argued that the system worked, in the sense that policymakers...
Opinion: Welcome moves toward transparency
Opinion: Welcome moves toward transparency

Stephen Deere, a new Atlanta city government reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, joined the paper last October. He put in his first open records request with the city even before his first day on the job. He requested legal invoices, settlements and an expenditure database. And despite the law that says most open records should be produced...
More Stories