by Ashlee Highland, Supervising Attorney
When I started college, I knew that I would become a corporate lawyer because I wanted to make a lot of money. With my father and grandfathers all being lawyers, it was an easy career decision. Dad recommended that I attend business school first. So, when I attended business school and volunteered at a domestic violence shelter, I then realized that I really wanted to devote my career to helping people have a voice in their legal problems. While at law school, I was committed to working in legal aid, but I didn’t truly understand how big a role poverty plays in impacting our clients’ legal problems.
Legal Aid Problems Exacerbated by Poverty
With any legal problem that CARPLS hears on the hotline or at our court-based advice desks, poverty has always made it worse. Day in and day out talking to clients, we hear about poverty regarding a myriad of legal problems, stemming from civil, criminal or family matters.
Talking to a client who has received an eviction notice of nonpayment of rent, you find out they could not cure their rent owed because their bank account was frozen due to a credit card judgment. In different instances, a client cannot purchase medicine because their bank account has been frozen, and another client faces foreclosure because he/she is disabled and has not yet received a Social Security disability award. In discussing their legal issues, clients often mention the loss of a job, their own health problems, sickness or death of a family member, not receiving benefits, child support, or other roadblocks—a circle nearly impossible to escape. In these cases, poverty hindered their ability to get help.
Like the chicken and the egg, it is hard to discern what comes first: does poverty cause the legal problems or do the legal problems cause poverty? In my opinion, it is both.
A Glimpse of Poverty
Being poor often impacts how our clients experience the services we are providing, and how we deliver legal services to this population in a system that sometimes stigmatizes the poor. Because of all this, it ironically costs more to be poor. This also explains why low-income clients do not always follow up on instructions and next steps given to them by their lawyers. It’s often because they can’t miss work, must deal with child care, take care of a sick family member, or don’t have the transportation to make multiple trips to court, to see a lawyer, or go to other government offices.
Throughout the last several years, the Illinois Lawyers Trust Fund/Chicago Bar Foundation has offered an interactive poverty simulation called Walk a Month in My Shoes: a Poverty Simulation to help advocates understand the issues of low-income clients and their economic challenges. It was one of the best seminars I have ever attended and still strikes me years later.
We were divided into different groups or families and assigned varying scenarios to act out: trying to get temporary government assistance or a link card, accessing unemployment benefits, facing eviction, trying to obtain employment, and how to live on those limited means just for a month. The goal was to understand what it is like to try to make ends meet.
In the simulation, I remember needing to go to the public aid office during my lunch break, but the line was too long, and I had to return to work, so I could not get the service I needed. I then got a payday loan to purchase groceries, even though I was supposed to be eligible for a link card (food stamps). My pretend family then had to pay the huge interest rate to prevent my wages from being garnished. At the end of the three-hour seminar, unlike my clients, I was able to leave the poverty in the room, but the experience still haunts me.
So, how can we make sure advocacy surrounding poverty remains at the forefront? I do not know the answer to this question. Raising the minimum wage is not the only fix for the problem. On February 19, 2019, Illinois passed legislation to progressively increase minimum wage to $15 per hour by the year 2025. This new law will positively affect about 1.4 million people. This is a start to economic justice, but we need to challenge ourselves to actively discuss the roots of poverty and how we can help those in legal need to escape it.
CARPLS Helps People Access Justice
The reason I enjoy working at CARPLS is that our goal for the future is to have anybody be able to talk to a lawyer for free. We are not there yet, but we are on our way. I love that we help the working class, and those who are low-income or living in poverty. I am also proud of the fact that CARPLS has court-based advice desks that can talk to clients before court, sometimes that same day. Having the hotline open late on Mondays and Wednesdays allows clients to contact us at different hours. We are constantly striving to make legal aid accessible. I am also proud of my work over the last several years with the Access to Justice Commission, which makes court forms more user-friendly.
At CARPLS, our goal is to remove the barriers to obtaining legal aid, and we will continue to work towards this vision of access to justice for all.