Wednesday, March 13, 2019
New from Prof. Ted Afield on the work of Low Income Taxpayer Clinics:
Tax justice is social justice. To those regularly working to resolve tax controversies for low-income taxpayers and who are often dealing with the financial implications of life and death issues like human trafficking, the ability to afford medical care, and the risks of financial despair leading to suicide, this is an uncontroversial statement. To those for whom “tax attorney” is often the punchline to their favorite lawyer joke, however, this statement appears not to fit in with traditional conceptions of social justice. This is particularly true when social justice is defined as requiring not just improved access to representation in any type of legal matter but also as requiring specific societal outcomes that reduce poverty, improve housing access, combat racial discrimination, reduce hunger, and improve healthcare access. At first blush to those outside the tax bar who do not appreciate that most of these issues are inextricably linked to the tax system, tax justice does not appear to do any of these things. Accordingly, tax issues are often overlooked in the conversation about improving social justice.
Tax justice, however, is in fact a social justice issue. The most illustrative example of the social justice gains that can occur when tax justice is prioritized as an area of need can be found in the work of low-income taxpayer clinics (“LITCs”). LITCs engage in a combination of representation, education, and advocacy work that is essential in protecting taxpayer rights, securing economic benefits for the poor, and helping the vulnerable avoid having a tax liability impact their ability to obtain housing, healthcare, and/or employment.
Appreciating the social justice components of tax justice is not solely an academic issue of definitional precision—failing to understand the connection between tax work and social justice has negative societal consequences as well. The limited resources available to provide legal assistance to low-income individuals are often allocated towards solutions perceived to be improving social justice as well as access to justice, and tax issues are consequently often not prioritized because of a perceived lack of connection to this mission. This is particularly true in the academic clinical community, which, given the resource advantages that many academic institutions have over legal service organizations, is a critical component of both improving access to justice and advancing social justice.
Because of a misperception that tax representation is not a social justice issue, academic LITCs have not grown as quickly as one would expect given the financial incentives for such growth in the form of the availability of federal grant funds. Thus, appreciating tax justice as a social justice issue has practical implications for future LITC growth and for the benefits that such growth provides, particularly in the academic community. Accordingly, making this connection explicit to the academic community is an important step in closing the access to tax justice gap. This paper attempts to make this connection as explicit as possible and suggests changes to the LITC program that could even more directly tie in the work of LITCs to a social justice mission, regardless of how social justice is defined.