A Short History of Poverty Lawyers in the United States

By: Deborah J. Cantrell. Published by: Journal of Public Interest Law. Published in October 2003.

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Since at least the late 1800s, lawyers in the United States have worked for the poor without charge. These lawyers have been known by many labels: legal aid lawyers, progressive lawyers, legal services lawyers, and poverty lawyers. This article uses the label “poverty lawyer” to include all lawyers, at any time, who have focused on using law, the legal system, and other methods of advocacy, to try to change political and social institutions in ways that ensure every person has her basic needs met for shelter, food, clothing, and, if able, work. A poverty lawyer primarily focuses on issues of wealth and class, distinguishing her from other lawyers working with the poor who focus on issues such as race. A poverty lawyer today likely helps her clients with such matters as maintaining welfare benefits, challenging changes in food stamp regulations, lobbying her state legislature to increase funding for free medical care for poor children, and suing a real estate developer for failing to include the appropriate number of affordable units in a new housing complex.

Through the years, poverty lawyers have faced a continuing challenge — how to help the poor change their conditions. Poverty lawyers have had to consider what tactics will work: litigation, legislative lobbying, social protest, or some other method. They have also faced a continuing dilemma — whether to focus on the individual client and solve the specific problem she has, or focus on changing the political and social structures.

Categories: General/Unspecified Clients, National

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