The General Assembly’s war on the poor hits another new low

By: - June 20, 2017 5:00 am

Unexplained, backroom maneuver would rob already underfunded anti-poverty program

There’s no denying that conservative ideology plays a big and important role in driving the North Carolina public policy debate these days. In battle after battle, Republican lawmakers have justified their positions and decisions – from cutting taxes on the wealthy and profitable corporations to reducing environmental protection efforts to privatizing public education to an array of other actions – with the claim that they were vindicating the overarching philosophical cause of downsizing government and “unleashing the private sector.”

Progressives almost always disagree with these justifications – often vehemently and with good reason – but, in most instances, one must concede a certain consistency, however twisted, to the conservative argument. Experience confirms that slashing taxes on the rich won’t actually stimulate economic growth, but one can at least see where the other side is coming from.

And then there are the actions that are just plain mean and vindictive, and for which even ideology fails to provide a plausible cover story.

A new and disturbing example of this brand of public policymaking is on display this week in the apparent decision of state budget writers to eliminate an important line of funding that has long been earmarked for the state’s legal aid community.

Under a provision that was slipped into the House version of the budget and that, at last report, is likely to appear in the final conference report between the House and the Senate, North Carolina will cease earmarking $1.50 from the court fees collected in criminal actions for what’s known as “Access to Civil Justice Funds.”

This means that the state’s legal aid community – a mostly shoestring operation that struggles heroically to serve the civil law needs of tens of thousands of poor clients each year (more than a third of the state’s population of 10 million is actually poor enough to be eligible for some services) with a small cadre of lawyers, paralegals, volunteer coordinators and other professionals – will suffer an annual budget cut of roughly $1.7 million. This, in turn, means that dozens of good people doing vital work for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents while earning bargain basement pay will soon lose their jobs. It also means that hundreds, if not thousands, of low income people will simply go without when it comes to vindicating basic rights in court.

A devastating cut

There simply can be no legitimate justification for such a cut – even if one is motivated by ideology. Though vital to legal aid programs, the amount of money is a pittance – less than a rounding error – in a $22 billion state budget. What’s more, there is no “private sector” to be unleashed in this realm. That, in fact, is why legal aid exists in the first place – because members of the private, for-profit bar can’t and/or won’t handle the cases legal aid advocates handle.

Consider the following mission statement language from Legal Aid of North Carolina – the largest single recipient of Equal Access to Justice funds:

We Fight for Families & Protect Victims of Violence

  • We secure protective orders for victims of domestic violence.
  • We help mothers get the child support they deserve.
  • We defend victims of violence in child custody disputes.
  • We work with grandparents on guardianship cases.
  • We fight for children’s rights in schools.

We Save Homes & Prevent Homelessness

  • We stop illegal evictions.
  • We save homes from foreclosure.
  • We fight housing discrimination.
  • We prevent illegal termination of housing subsidies.
  • We help disaster victims who have lost their homes.

We Protect Income & Ensure Economic Equality

  • We fight aggressive and illegal debt collection tactics.
  • We prevent illegal terminations of public benefits.
  • We help the elderly and disabled obtain medical benefits.
  • We defend protected income from wage garnishment.
  • We work to correct credit ratings.

We Defend Workers & Maintain Employment

  • We fight job discrimination.
  • We recover illegally denied unemployment benefits.
  • We stop wage theft to ensure workers are paid what they earned.
  • We defend farmworkers in wage, housing, and safety matters.
  • We expunge old criminal records to pave the way to employment and self-sufficiency.

Legal aid programs also operate under a number of law-made and self-imposed restrictions not applicable to private law firms. They do not solicit clients. They do not get involved in politics. And they handle no criminal cases, no class action lawsuits, no personal injury cases and no cases involving abortion, assisted suicide, redistricting, voter registration or welfare reform.

They exist, in other words to handle the basic, “meat and potatoes” cases of poor people who walk in the door and that the private bar cannot or will not handle. In 2015, Legal Aid of NC cases broke down along the following lines:

  • 30% Housing – foreclosure prevention, eviction defense, safe housing, equal housing, housing vouchers.
  • 20% Domestic violence – protective orders, child custody, expunction of erroneous charges.
  • 10% Consumer rights – predatory lending, unfair debt collection, exemptions and bankruptcies to protect essential property and income.
  • 10% Benefits – VA benefits, unemployment, food assistance, Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability.
  • 30% Other – education, health care, human trafficking, wills and powers of attorney.

Meanwhile, here are some basic facts about their clientele:

  • The average median household income is $16,000.
  • 38% have annual household incomes of $10,000 or less.
  • 73% of clients are women.
  • 25% are age 60 or older.
  • 44% are white, 43% are black, 7% are Hispanic, and 6% are Native American or are of some other background.

The two other recipient programs – Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services – have similar statistics. Add to all of this the fact that legal aid programs are capable of addressing only perhaps 20% of the need that exists for their services, and the fact that they have long enjoyed the support of a veritable “who’s who” of establishment judges, lawyers and law firms, and it’s a wonder funding isn’t five or ten times its current level. It certainly ought to be.

So why the destructive attack?

The problem for legal aid – as it regrettably so often is in the world of politics – appears to be personal. Somewhere down the line, a legal aid program somewhere seems to have ticked off the friend of a powerful politician. Word on the street in Raleigh is that a lawyer with ties to (or, at least, influence with, state House leadership) may have been bested years ago by a legal aid advocate and is now, at long last, getting his or her revenge.

Sadly, this would make sense – especially given the fact that there was never any public hearing or other legislative event at which an advocate or lawmaker actually spoke up to sponsor or support such a cut. As with so many other acts of the current General Assembly these days, the cut simply materialized out of thin air behind closed doors. As an op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer explained a couple of years back, this has also happened before.

That lawmakers have apparently decided to leave in place another allocation from court fees to legal aid programs earmarked specifically for domestic violence cases, lends further credence to this theory. After all, if the reasons for imposing the cut were truly ideological or even justified in any specific way, why not just eliminate all funding?

Clearly, the authors of the $1.7 million cut in question are concerned more with sending a cynical message that will raise as few hackles in the general public as possible. They don’t really care about victims of domestic violence – the cut in question will clearly harm them too – but neither were they willing to come out and have an open debate about the subject or risk the public derision that would come from explicitly targeting domestic violence victims.

The bottom line

North Carolina lawmakers have imposed scores of destructive cuts to the social safety net over the past seven years. In many cases, however, these cuts were accompanied by at least a plausible ideological or substantive explanation. Sadly, in the present instance, that’s not the case. The 2018-19 state budget will cut legal aid to poor people and cause lots of good advocates to lose their jobs simply because some powerful people want it to.

Somewhere Donald Trump is smiling.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.