This is a guest post from National Advisory Committee member Bill Penn. Bill Penn is the Public Interest Law Coordinator at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
As young public interest lawyers prepare to enter the field of legal aid, it is important for them to understand how poverty is defined, and how that definition can affect clients who are seeking legal assistance. Nationwide, 14.3 percent of Americans are living below the federal poverty line. What is “the poverty line”? Today it is defined as $14,710 for a family of two. That number represents what the US Department of Health and Human Services has determined to be the poverty guideline. The United States Census Bureau uses what is known as a poverty threshold to determine poverty status for individuals and their families. The threshold is computed by the family size, the ages of each family member and the income of each individual. Once the family’s income is calculated it is divided against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) set poverty guideline. If their threshold is higher than the poverty guideline, even if it is marginal, the family cannot be considered poor enough for services.
Each year the number that has been determined by the HHS as the poverty guideline is inflation-adjusted. However, the underlying number has not changed since 1965 and it largely fails to account for the cost of living in today’s society. In a nutshell, the gap between the established federal poverty level and what it really takes for a family to survive is discouraging.
This is particularly so when families who are in need of social services and cannot afford them, do not qualify for assistance by the government’s standards. The poverty guideline is used-- to determine eligibility for many government programs including access to Legal Services Corporation funded legal services, Head Start for children, job training, and more. Arguably this number does not leave room for families to actually survive. Every other year, the State of Oregon publishes county-by-county information about the population living under the federal poverty guideline, homelessness, and housing burden. Housing burdensets in when a household spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities. This can be an indicator of what income is required to live above the poverty level. The 2008 Oregon Poverty Report offered more insight into a living income with a model budget and comparison to the income made in various jobs. For a single parent family of two, the 2008 report estimated $35,556 ($36,904 in today's dollars) as the income needed to cover basic expenses. This is just a couple thousand dollars less per year than the starting salary for legal aid attorneys in Portland. It is more than can be made at the local average wage for a home health aid, cashier, nursing aid, retail sales associate, or non-specialized secretary, thus a single parent working those jobs would have trouble covering expenses.
What do people do when their income is not enough? They cut back on heat and electricity, skipmeals, and they make life altering sacrifices. The things they cannot afford are attorney fees, or medical bills, or a period of unemployment should an emergency arise.
The lives of those seeking legal aid are often in a delicate financial balance. That balance can lead to growing suffering: the renter who is reluctant to confront a problem landlord suffers while balancing a fear of being unable to afford to move or pay rent deposits on a new home; the employee who is reluctant to confront a discriminating boss suffers while balancing the fear of not being able to afford to search for a new job; and the abused parent who is reluctant to leave suffers while balancing a fear that one paycheck is not enough to afford anything. Understanding what this financial balance means beyond the single number of the poverty index and understanding these fears, can help public interest attorneys not only empathize with clients, but also help solve problems in a way that protects that balance and ease their fears.
How the Census Bureau Measures Poverty; http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/measure.html