Monday, December 4, 2017

Investing in solving the rural lawyer shortage can pay economic dividends

One of the biggest questions around solving the rural lawyer shortage is funding. Where is the money going to come from? One possible source of funding to hire rural attorneys is increased funding for civil legal aid. However civil legal aid funding is on the decline and rural areas often bear the brunt of these cuts. In many states, such as North Carolina, reductions in Legal Aid funding have even led to the closure of offices in the rural and often underserved parts of the state.  President Donald Trump's budget even calls for the elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which would further exacerbate these issues.

Much of the rhetoric around defunding Legal Aid has centered around the idea of waste and that Legal Aid isn't fulfilling its mandate. As Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia said in 2015:
To cut Federal waste, my third proposal defunds the Legal Services Corporation, an agency which operates far outside its original mandate after decades absent of any congressional oversight. Defunding the Legal Services Corporation is a proposal supported by both the Congressional Budget Office and The Heritage Foundation. Instead of providing legal services to the poor, as is its mandate, the organization has been used to advance pro-abortion and politically ideological policies, as well as increase spending on welfare.

Defunding this organization would remove a Federal agency operating outside of its mandate and would also save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Without litigating the veracity of his other claims, that will come in a future post, I want to analyze this idea that defunding Legal Aid will actually cut "federal waste" and "save taxpayers millions of dollars."

In 2013, the New Hampshire Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission sponsored a study  that analyzed the impact of civil legal aid on the economy of New Hampshire, a similar study was sponsored in 2016 by Maine's Justice Action Group. Given the fact that these two states are predominantly (if not entirely in Maine's case) rural, I will be using these two studies to inform my analysis of this issue and the potential to legal services to boost a rural economy.

In 2011, assistance provided by New Hampshire's legal services organizations accounted for an $84.4 million dollar boost to the New Hampshire economy. The sources of this money varied from federal programs to child and spousal support to even cost savings associated with avoiding paying for domestic violence shelters. In 2015, these numbers totaled to $37 million in Maine. This is money that is coming into the state that may not have otherwise come into the state. This is also money that goes into the local economy.

What about the idea that these people could just hire an attorney and secure these benefits anyway? As the Maine study notes, 80% of civil legal aid clients are from households with incomes below $25,000, representing the bottom quartile of the state's population. These are simply people who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney and it is likely that without civil legal services, millions of dollars would be lost from the Maine and New Hampshire economies. For rural citizens, the affordability issue is multiplied by the short supply of attorneys in rural communities. As I noted here, rural Maine is facing a severe lawyer shortage. Without legal services, if you cannot afford one of the local attorneys, who themselves are often underpaid and overworked, you are out of luck. With a robust legal services apparatus however, that issue is at least partially alleviated. This is a direct rebuke of Rep. Mooney's claim that legal services organizations are not providing services to the poor.

Recipients of civil legal aid services are also better able to advance their careers and further their education. For rural communities facing a labor shortage, trained workers are an invaluable asset to the local economy. A student who has to leave school has just lost an opportunity to learn a skill or trade that they could use to contribute to their local economy. Not only did the community lose a future contributor but that person may have also lost the opportunity to provide a stable future for their families.

A student may have to leave school for a variety of reasons, many of which could be fixed if they had competent legal counsel. Here are three examples of how this would look:
  • A student who is facing food insecurity applies for SNAP benefits but is denied. With the help of counsel, they would be able to appeal and possibly get into the program but without counsel, they may have to leave school to work extra hours to make up for the difference. As Maslow's hierarchy of needs dictates, the need for food is one of our most basic needs 
  • A student who is facing eviction from their housing. Without counsel, a student would likely lose their housing and either leave school entirely or watch their grades fall as they struggle with housing insecurity. With counsel however, they may be able to retain their housing and, if applicable, any government benefits that help pay for it. 
  • A student finds themselves in a domestic violence situation and without the assistance of counsel would likely have to deal with harassment and violence.  The stress would almost certainly interfere with their studies. With counsel, they can seek a protective order and other legal remedies that would help keep the person out of their lives. 
There are many other examples, of course, but ponder these three, how they may interfere with a person's studies and how legal services can help remedy their situations. In Maine, increased wages brought about because of education accounted for $2.75 million (calculated over a 10-year period) of the $37 million quoted above. 

You can read the studies for more information, charts, graphs, and more precise quantitative analysis. It is clear from these studies that Rep. Mooney's claim that legal service organizations represent a waste in federal funding is simply preposterous. Rep. Mooney's decision to unfairly attack "welfare" also represents a gross misunderstanding of the benefits that federal programs provide to local communities. As seen above, these programs represent millions of dollars that flow into local economies that help people purchase necessities such as food, housing, and child care. The benefits of these dollars goes beyond the populations that they directly help, they also provide money that helps to keep local businesses open. In an impoverished rural community, these dollars can even represent a substantial chunk of the local economy. As seen in New Hampshire and Maine, cutting legal services would not "save taxpayers millions of dollars," it would instead cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lost economic revenue. A common misconception seems to be that government benefits evaporate as soon as they reach the pockets of the people who receive them. However, these dollars are often reinvested in local businesses and the local economy, a fact confirmed by these studies.

Anyone who is concerned about lifelong dependency on government programs should be heartened by the idea that these services do help people get an education and begin to climb the ladder out of poverty. To take away access to the courts would take away access to these programs and would likely doom a lot of people to a lifetime of poverty.

Legal services organizations provide an invaluable service to a population who would not otherwise have access to the courts and helps them secure benefits that provide funding for the local economy. They also enable students to remain in school and receive the training needed to be valuable contributors to the local economy in their own right. When 80% of the clients are from the bottom 25% of the population, it is clear that legal services organizations are providing a service that may not otherwise be possible.

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