Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Access to Justice and Child Poverty in Rural New Mexico

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty tours the country during his official visit to the United States, we offer another in a series of blog entries on US poverty:

by Max Dismukes, Northeastern School of Law '19

Forget the archetype of the idyllic countryside: there are proportionally more people living in poverty in rural communities than in cities or suburbs throughout the United States.

Because it exists in remote, untraveled communities, the devastating realities of rural poverty can be invisible for those living in the country’s urban centers. As this map shows, the highest rates of rural childhood poverty cut a contiguous swath through the South, from Arizona to West Virginia.

Not only is poverty higher in rural places, but it is also more persistent, generation to generation. The metaphor of escaping poverty takes on its true meaning for rural Americans. Geography is destiny, and the only path to upward mobility so often leads away from home and toward the city.

Nowhere is the interplay between geography, poverty, and opportunity more salient than in New Mexico, with the highest rate of childhood poverty of any U.S. state at 29.9% (See table R1702). That rate is substantially higher in the state’s most remote, rural communities. For instance, in Columbus, NM, an isolated town of 1,200 on the U.S.-Mexico border that was famously attacked by Pancho Villa in 1916, 75% of children live below the poverty line (Search Columbus, NM).

Meaningful access to the civil justice system is a powerful tool for combating poverty. It is perhaps no wonder then that legal aid can be extraordinarily difficult to obtain for people living in places with the most persistent poverty. For every 10,000 New Mexicans, there are 26.6 lawyers, compared to the national average of 40.3. For every 10,000 New Mexicans living in poverty, there are 0.47 legal aid lawyers, compared to the national average of 0.64. The concentration of lawyers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where the density of attorneys actually exceeds the national average, masks the full extent of the shortage in the state’s rural areas. Half of New Mexicans, but less than one third of legal service providers, live in rural parts of the state. In Columbus, the nearest attorney is 33 miles away in Deming; and the nearest legal aid office is 92 miles away in Las Cruces (See here for citations and additional information).

 New Mexico Legal Aid (NMLA) is deeply committed to serving New Mexicans in every part of the state. Through remote representation, partnerships with pro bono attorneys, and other strategies, NMLA does much to compensate for its lack of neighborhood offices in every county.

Nevertheless, there is a significant shortage of attorneys willing and able to help New Mexico’s rural poor with their most pressing legal needs. This shortage is compounded by language barriers, great distances to the nearest courthouse, ineffective government agencies, and poor internet infrastructure. In turn, the lack of adequate social services exacerbates the negative socioeconomic effects that arise from an inability to redress any violations of legal rights through the civil justice system.

Despite serious humanitarian concerns, issues of rural poverty in the 21st century are prone to the fatalistic argument that society is urbanizing, and it is not worth expending resources on dying rural communities. But is the abandonment of remote, rural places really a necessary corollary to progress? Looking abroad suggests that it is not. In Finland, for example, poverty and childhood poverty are virtually nonexistent, and this high standard of living extends with relatively little variation from Helsinki throughout the country’s rural north. Finland also provides publicly funded legal aid to its residents, both rural and urban, who need and are unable to afford representation.         

The lack of a right to civil counsel in New Mexico and the United States is a human rights issue. In the words of Gabriela Knaul, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, “legal aid is both a right in itself and an essential precondition for the exercise and enjoyment of a number of human rights.” For families with children living in poverty, this is especially true. Not only are their immediate economic and social rights staked on the outcome of a given legal problem, but so too is their right to a life of opportunity and self-determination.  Defending against an eviction or securing back pay for stolen wages does not only keep a family in their home or give them the money to provide for their basic needs. It also prevents a downward spiral into homelessness and abject poverty that interferes with a child’s education, physical and mental health, and ultimately, her ability to lay the groundwork for a happy, successful life.

Providing a right to civil counsel, operationalized through a system of neighborhood legal aid offices extending throughout the state, would help New Mexico’s impoverished rural children to realize their right to equal opportunity. Lawyers have remarkable power, and legal aid provides hope for combating multigenerational poverty. This reallocation of power and the shifting of financial resources that accompanies each successful case has the potential to allow rural people to defeat poverty where they are, without having to escape from it.

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