Observations on Legal Services, NCLEJ, and the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

Henry Freedman, Executive Director, National Center for Law and Economic Justice

January 8, 2014

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson launched the “War on Poverty” in his State of the Union address. A year later the National Center for Law and Economic Justice was founded to bring lawyers into that war, to see if “poverty lawyers” could emulate the civil rights lawyers who had achieved so much for their clients and the country.

President Johnson pursued his vision aggressively. Medicare and Medicaid became law. The Food Stamp (now SNAP) program was made permanent. The Economic Opportunity Act created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), responsible for a variety of programs including civil legal services.

Despite the impact it has had and continues to have, OEO’s legal services program is receiving surprisingly little attention in the many articles and postings about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. OEO funded, and often created, local legal services programs to provide legal representation to low income people on matters issues of critical importance, including housing, custody and divorce, consumer problems, and of course, our area, public benefits.

Legal services programs took on powerful forces, such as employers of migrant workers and local public officials unaccustomed to being held to account. Opponents made many attempts to eliminate legal services funding and prevent legal services lawyers from providing zealous representation to their clients. Yet over the years and to this day, the hard working lawyers and paralegals in local legal services programs have given millions of people a chance to overcome crises and pursue the American dream. You can learn more about the federal program at www.lsc.gov.

Back in 1965, NCLEJ was an experiment, designed to see if lawyers working out of a national office could train and inspire local lawyers while initiating litigation and policy advocacy to achieve systemic reforms. The experiment was an immediate success. OEO used NCLEJ as the model for additional national support centers, setting up the National Health Law Program, the National Housing Law Project, the National Consumer Law Center, and others. In addition, the Food Research and Action Center and the National Employment Law Project were spun off from NCLEJ.

Even though federal funding for these national and similar state programs was eliminated by the “Contract with America” Congress in 1995, most have survived, largely with private support, and continue to work with legal aid and legal services lawyers across the country to provide critical advocacy in the ongoing War on Poverty.

Every day, somewhere in America, families receive vital health, nutrition, child care, and cash benefits as the result of NCLEJ’s work with its colleagues. And now, millions of low-income people are gaining health coverage as the Affordable Care Act is implemented. If it were not for the various government programs enacted over the years, and vigorous advocacy by NCLEJ and our colleagues to make those programs work as they should, millions would still be living in poverty. Every day, tragic mistakes are prevented because NCLEJ’s 1970 Supreme Court victory in Goldberg v. Kelly requires government agencies to give meaningful notice and an opportunity to be heard before vital aid is cut off. This is our war on poverty, and it is making a difference.

While we celebrate these triumphs, poverty is far too persistent. The people we serve are now suffering, and threatened with further harm, as unemployment insurance and SNAP benefits are slashed. Sadly, it seems that the nation has moved from a War on Poverty to a war on the poor. People in powerful positions press policies that call for people who are unable to feed, clothe and house their families to suffer even more, on the theory that those people need the pressure of even greater suffering to enable them to find employment which can meet their families’ need.

We at NCLEJ will continue to press for fair policies and program administration that uphold the dignity and worth of every individual. We will continue to litigate and advocate for the fairness and dignity exemplified in Goldberg v. Kelly for all in our land. And we look forward to working with our colleagues and supporters in that effort.