Friday, January 13, 2017
Much is going to change for Americans over the next weeks and years with the new Administration. With change comes fear and in this case change looks to be formidable. It seems like every moment, we are bombarded with information reminding us of people whose needs and legal rights need to be protected now more than ever and asking us to support them. We are pressed to bring foremost to our minds many issues. People’s free speech rights may be challenged. Non-citizens may be harassed or deported. Women will not be respected. Gay and transgender people may lose gains made over the last few years. Many may lose healthcare. It is scary. These people need help and protections. The warnings we get are real and they are right. Just worrying about these things is not enough. Steps must be taken to ensure that people are protected. Sometimes, it is protecting people who may be close to or similar to us and whose problems we understand viscerally. Sometimes it is protecting people who are just people that we cannot stand to see potentially harmed by what seems like coming vast change and possible attack.
I am afraid, too, about many of these issues. My fear, however, is that in the overwhelming barrage of all of this change, the needs of the poor and of the traditionally legally underserved are forgotten. As a lawyer and teacher who has spent much of my career working on issues of the poor, one of my biggest fears is that these people who have needed our help and continue to need our help will be put on the back burner as we struggle to protect other things.
That is not to say that all of the issues described in the first paragraph are not important. They are. But what is going to happen over the next few months to the poor? My clients depend on SSI, a welfare program designed to provide minimal income benefits to poor people with disabilities, on TANF, a welfare program designed to provide much less but at least something to parents with children, and on SNAP benefits. Will those programs continue to exist? Will they be under attack? Even if they are not, my clients still need help proving they need these benefits. Won’t it still be a problem that like many states, my state has chosen long before this election to dismantle General Assistance for those who cannot qualify for other income support programs? Don’t these issues still need to be addressed?
My fear for the coming months and years is that we will help those like us more than those not like us. For well over a year now, I have been struggling to write a law review article about legal triage, a topic many have discussed before me in the clinical legal world. My continuing struggle as a former glorified pro bono coordinator, as a legal services attorney, and now as a law professor is that the people that we relate to most are really the people who get help. It is easy to see that people like us are people we have to help. We help those with disabilities when we know family or friends with disabilities. We help people with health insurance when we know those who have struggled without it or feel we know those at risk. My fear for the next few months is that those who we do not generally see who have often been the traditional clients that advocates for the legally underserved have helped will be left behind as we struggle to protect people like us or people we know on issues that are really, really important. My hope is that I and my students will remember that there are still real needs among our traditional client base. I do not argue that we necessarily need to help them the way that I try to with my students through individual work. There are likely better ways and certainly just as good ways of working for the poor that are as important or better than what we do. But my wish for MLK Day is that people do not forget this group. While we struggle to work on other issues that are really important, let's continue to focus on the needs of the poor.