Written by Jonathan Smith

Aug 03


Mayor Uses TANF Money Set Aside for Homeless Services for Summer Youth Employment Program

Executive Director

The Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program has run into management problems each of the last three years.   This year is no exception.   The program has incurred massive cost overruns.    Thousands of young people were enrolled beyond the funds that had been allocated in the District’s budget.  On top of that, the Mayor sought approval from the Council to extend the program from 6 to 7 1/2 weekd.   To bridge the gap and pay for the extension, the Mayor took $8.4 million in TANF Contingency Emergency Funds that had been set aside for homeless services and other human services priorities.

Yesterday, Councilmember Michael Brown held a hearing on the program’s operation and the Mayor’s request.   You may read my testimony here .   The hearing was packed with young people who had been brought by their programs to testify about the benefits of the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP).  They were terrific and convincing, but none more so than the two young people who changed their minds.   Upon learning that the SYEP was being funded at the expense of people who are homeless, they urged that the homeless money be restored.

This morning, the Council voted to not extend the program.   It remains unclear whether the cost overruns have consumedthe TANF money or whether some might be returned to the Department of Human Services.

The Mayor’s actions were an end-run of the budget process.  The District just completed the drafting of its budget.   On April 1, the Mayor sent his proposal to the Council and there was a two month period of intense and public review.   Scores of hearings were held, advocates met with Council members and staff, careful reviews were conducted and the budget was marked up by committees and then eventually by the Council as a whole.   That budget was signed by the Mayor and sent to Congress for its review.   Less than a month after the vote, the Mayor skirts that process and takes money from one program to fund another.

TANF Emergency Contingency Funds are needed for other priorities.  They are part of the federal economic stimulus legislation.   The District is entitled to draw up to $46 million from the federal government to off-set increased costs due to the recession.  During the recent budget deliberations, the executive declared an intent to use $8.1 million in 2010 to cover the shortfall in homeless services, $5.5 million in 2010 to pay for a new IMA case management system and the balance of the money in 2011 in TANF cash assistance, job training and other TANF related initiatives.

The money that the executive committed to put aside for homeless services is critical.   In fiscal year 2010, the District directed $12 million in TANF money that had previously been used for homeless services to other purposes.   The $8.1 million in stimulus funding was supposed to provide a partial restoration of the cut and mitigate the impact on services to some of the District’s most vulnerable residents.

 A reduction in homeless services during a deep recession is particularly troubling.   Cuts to programs come at a time of increased need.  Extraordinarily high rates of unemployment are making many more families vulnerable and charitable services have been hit but cuts.   In July, nearly 450 families were on the waiting list for emergency shelter.

It is unfair to pit these two important needs against each other.   The choice should not be youth job training or homeless services.   But because of the way this played out, that is the choice the Council must make.   Maybe they ought to change the rules and take the money to fund both from somewhere else in the budget.

Jul 28


Summer Reading, Not Necessarily Appropriate for the Beach

Executive Director

TANF. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program is scheduled to be re-authorized this year.  TANF was the centerpiece of the mid-1990’s changes to the public systems of support for low-income families dubbed “welfare reform.”  The stated idea behind TANF was that it would give a short term cash benefit while parents were assisted to move into the workforce.  The result is that TANF participation has decreased and the percentage of people eligible for benefits who actually receive them has declinedLegal Momentum found that the decline in participation has, remarkably, continued throughout the recession.

Network, a group of Catholic social justice leaders, recently completed and published a report on the effectiveness of the TANF program during the recession.  TANF Tested: Lives of Families in Poverty during the Recession .   There are real questions about whether TANF’s focus on work made a difference during the boom years immediately following welfare reform.   Only a very small percentage of people leaving TANF for work secured employment with an adequate wage to lift them out of poverty.  During a recession, where official unemployment rates have climbed to nearly 10% nationally, the notion that work is the answer for most families living in poverty is absurd.

Driven by the results of the study, Network has made a number of important recommendations for the reauthorization bill.  The most important being that the basic measure of success be shifted from whether TANF caseloads are reduced to whether TANF recipients and those who leave TANF move out of poverty.

What the Federal Government Should Do Next to Reduce Poverty. Important provisions of the Stimulus Package provided support to state and local governments to continue and expand safety-net programs.   Key aspects of these programs are set to expire, despite that unemployment remains very high and communities are in distress.

The Urban Institute issued a briefing paper in July (Co-Authored by DC Access to Justice Commission Chair and Georgetown Law Professor Peter Edelman) with recommendation for short and long term measures that the federal government should take to reduce poverty and increase economic security.  Reducing Poverty and Economic:  Distress after ARRA: Next Steps for Short-Term Recovery and Long-Term Economic Security.  The paper looks at the immediate need for income support and job creation, but also looks forward to the next crisis in the job market and measures that might be taken to create long term economic stability.

Impact of the Recession on the Courts. We have previously written in this blog about the crisis in equal justice.  A new American Bar Association report examines the question from the perspective of the bench.  The ABA surveyed 1200 judges from across the country on the effects of the recession on representation in the courts.  The study found that self-representation is, not surprisingly, on the increase.  More significantly, however, the judges admit that self representation yields unjust results.  The report concluded:  “The most important issue with regard to self representation is what is its effect. The table below shows that while 37% of the judges say that it is not problematic, 62% say that individuals are negatively impacted. Only a very few say that there is a positive impact… Also troubling to 26% of the justices is that the court allows an injustice to occur when one of the parties is not able to properly present the valid claims or defense that they might have.”

Jul 21


Two Items on Access to Justice

Executive Director

DC Council – Committee Report on Access to Justice: When the District of Columbia Counsel took up the 2011 funding request for the Access to Justice Program, it took the extraordinary step of issuing a separate Committee Report.   Access to Justice funding supports direct legal assistance, language access and poverty lawyer loan forgiveness.   During the last three budget considerations, the Attorney General had sought major cuts to the program.   On each occasion, the Council, led by Public Safety Committee Chair Phil Mendelson, saved the program.   The Committee report urges:  “The District of Columbia, as our nation’s capital and the seat of democracy, should serve as a model in the provision of legal services and ensure all residents have equal access to the justice system.”  It is well worth a read.

ABA Model Act on Access to Justice: In 2006, the ABA adopted a resolution supporting the expansion of the right to council in civil cases.  “RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal, state, and territorial governments to provide legal counsel as a matter of right at public expense to low income persons in those categories of adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody, as determined by each jurisdiction.”

During its upcoming August meeting, the House of Delegates will consider two further resolutions designed to take a big step towards implementation of these goals – a model right to counsel act and a statement of Basic Principles of a Right to Counsel in Civil Legal Proceedings.  We are grateful for the work of the ABA on these important resolutions.

Jul 15


Disappointing Reporting on Legal Services

Executive Director

A very disappointing “exposé” from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has been circulating over email lists. See: Poor Help: Federal Legal Aid Vulnerable to Fraud, Questions of Conflicts and Intimidation. The report is disappointing because it describes an instance of fraud in which a Maryland Legal Aid Bureau employee stole millions from the program — taking money desperately needed to serve poor clients. The conduct of this employee is inexcusable and especially shameful because the money could have been used to stop evictions, protect women from domestic violence or represent children in dependency proceedings.

The report was also disappointing because it paints a false picture of the network of legal aid programs and the incredible work that they do. In an effort to sensationalize the theft in Maryland, CPI linked the story to a report prepared by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to Senator Grassley (a leading opponent of legal services) that contained recommendations to strengthen monitoring of grants made by the Legal Services Corporation.

The CPI reporting on this issue is incomplete and misleading.

First, while the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is the largest funder of civil legal assistance in the United States, the majority of programs do not get LSC money. The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia is not an LSC grantee. Most legal aid is provided by independent non-profits that raise their money from private foundations and the local bar. We care about what happens to LSC and its grantees, however. Our funding is inadequate to serve all clients who need our help and our colleagues who do get LSC money are an important part of the service network.

Second, the CPI story leaves the impression that there is rampant fraud throughout the legal aid community that goes unchecked by the Legal Services Corporation. CPI cites three examples of fraud among the thousands of programs that provide civil legal assistance. These instances are terrible, but they are rare and do not characterize the legal services movement. A quick Google search of “law firm embezzlement” reveals hundreds of recent stories of thefts from corporate firms, but no one would suggest that these criminal acts taint all corporate law firms.

Legal aid programs are mission driven organizations. Staff make great sacrifices do this work because they are deeply committed to justice and to working to end poverty. The starting salary for a Legal Aid lawyer in DC is $42,000, one fourth what a starting lawyer could make at a law firm (and our lawyers are as good as any lawyer in a corporate firm.) Our offices are humble, support is limited and there are very few perks beyond the love of the work. What Legal Aid lawyers do is hard and emotional, but the impact is enormous.

The reporting goes on to insinuate that there was something unseemly about having LSC staff attend the ABA Equal Justice Conference, which attracts hundreds of legal services and pro bono lawyers, because the ABA chose to have the conference at an Arizona resort. The conference center was chosen by the ABA because it was affordable, despite its description as a “resort.” It was not the posh junket suggested by the article.

Third, the report fails to even acknowledge the legacy of assault by business groups and right wing legislators on LSC. The program has been a cause célèbre in conservative circles for years with periodic efforts to cripple or eliminate the program. Cuts, restrictions and endless audits and investigations are designed to demoralize and keep legal services lawyers from doing their jobs. One has to wonder if the spate of bad press, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigations and other reports is not tied to a concerted effort to defeat the reauthorization of LSC pending in Congress.

The embezzlement in Maryland damaged the cause of equal justice, but the way in which it was reported is far more harmful. The reporting fails to acknowledge that this fraud is an outlier and that some of the attacks on LSC are politically motivated. Stories like these continue to put legal services programs and their dedicated staff on the defensive.

If the reporters wanted to understand the real shame of the theft, rather than talk to the Senator Grassley or read OIG reports, they should have talked to the clients of legal services lawyers and tried to understand the importance of equal justice lawyering. While the attacks on legal services get all the ink, almost no one is writing about the family whose home was saved from foreclosure, the woman who got a civil protection order, the child who was adopted, the senior who had a Medicare problem fixed or the parent who was reunited with a child by a legal aid lawyer. Those are the real stories of legal aid.

Jun 25


The Senate’s Failure to Pass the Jobs Bill — Very Bad News for the District

Yesterday, the Senate failed to overcome a Republican filibuster of the jobs bill. The bill would have extended unemployment benefits to more than a million of people who are out of work and would have also provided relief to state and local governments.

State and local government employment has been battered by the recession. Thousands of teacher, firefighter, police and other jobs have been eliminated as a consequence of the rapid decline in tax revenues. The Center for Budget and Policies Priorities calculates that 231,000 government positions have been eliminated since 2008. In an effort to offer assistance to the states to staunch the job loss, the jobs bill would have extended the enhanced Medicaid match that was contained in the original stimulus bill. Over the next year, these benefits would provide $15 billion in assistance.

The District just completed its budget for fiscal year 2011. As part of its revenue projections, the District assumed that the enhanced Medicaid match would be renewed. (About two-thirds of the states have also assumed that Congress would renew the program). The loss of these funds will open up a $54 million hole in the District’s budget. Unfortunately, when the District has been forced to fill gaps like these in the past, social services have been the first to be cut.

This is a double hit for people living in poverty in the District. Unemployment is extraordinarily high in low-income neighborhoods, long term unemployment is especially acute, federal benefits have been cut and the District will have fewer resources to provide a safety net. One can only imagine if those who opposed this legislation have Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature in mind for those at the bottom of our economic scale: "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Jun 22


Opportunity to Comment on New Poverty Measure


For decades, there has been concern about the way that the United States measures poverty.   The current measure was developed in the 1960’s.   At the time, a family was considered poor if they had income below a line that was roughly equal to 50% of the median income.   Because of the way that the measure was calculated, as income and costs increased, the poverty line did not keep pace.   Under the current measure, a family must have a significantly lower income today as compared to the general population than when the measure was devised.

A family of four lives under the poverty line if they have income of less than $22,050.    There are many District families with incomes well above the poverty line who struggle to make ends meet.   The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the average two bedroom apartment in the District costs nearly $20,000 per year.   Following the generally accepted affordability definition that housing should make up 30% of income, a District family would need to earn $60,000 per year, nearly three times the federal poverty measure.  

In 1995, the National Academy of Sciences developed an alternative poverty measure that more closely matches the actual costs that a family needs to meet in order to live.    The Census Bureau has collected data on the new measure and for several years has published it as a supplement to the official poverty data.   The Census is now seeking comments on the measure and how it should be applied. 

 Comments on the poverty measure are due Friday June 25, 2010.   See the public notice HERE

Jun 16


The District Fails to Monitor the First Source Act, Costing District Residents Jobs

One of the best ways to lift low-income District residents out of poverty is to provide them with a job that pays a living wage.   In an effort to provide good jobs to District residents, the Council enacted and the Mayor signed the First Source Act and the Living Wage Act.   The laws require that 51% of the employees hired for a City funded development projects be District residents and that the jobs pay a living wage.

The District Auditor released an evaluation of the compliance with these laws in connection with certain projects within the jurisdiction of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (specifically those that were started by the former Anacostia Waterfront Development Corporation and the National Capital Development Corporation.)   The auditor found that the District’s implementation was woefully inadequate. 

Among the findings of the Auditor are:

1.        The Department of Employment Services had inadequate procedures to monitor compliance with the statutes.

2.       The failure to monitor resulted in wide spread no- compliance.   Only 4 of 16 covered projects met the 51% goal.   As a result, there were 361 jobs that should have gone to District residents that were given to persons living outside the District.

3.       District residents lost more than $14 million in wages that were paid for by public funds.

4.       The living wage provisions have not been adequately implemented.   The Auditor specifically blamed the Mayor and the Attorney General for failing to support efforts by DOES to comply with the obligations of the law.

The results of the audit are very disturbing.   At a time when the unemployment rate in the District is near 11% and in some wards near 30%, nothing could be more important than job creation.   Given the structural imbalance created by the District’s “unique” relationship with the federal government and its suburban neighbors, it is particularly unfortunate to provide government funds for jobs for people living outside the District.

If the District government is serious about helping reduce poverty in the District, fixing First Source and Living Wage compliance monitoring is a great first and easy step.

Jun 10


Law Schools Should Teach Students to Serve Where the Needs are the Greatest

I have the honor of attending the District of Columbia Circuit Judicial Conference this week.  (Thank you, Judge Kessler).  Among the presentations this morning was a panel on the Future of Legal Education.  Deans Erwin Chemerinsky from Irvine School of Law, Veryl Miles from Catholic Columbus School of Law and David Van Zandt from North Western presented.

They discussed at length their concerns that the shrinking large law firm employment market was driving changes in legal education.  They focused on the need to ensure that their students would be competitive for the remaining “big law” jobs.  I stood in line to ask a question, but the program ended before they got to my spot in the queue.  The program, however, does require a response.

There are more than 37 million people in the United States living below the federal poverty line and scores of millions others who while not technically “poor” have inadequate incomes.   There are very limited legal services for those at the very bottom of the income scale and for those who have too much income to qualify for a free lawyer, but too little to pay a lawyer, there is nothing.  Around ½ of one percent of the legal industry is dedicated to serving people with low-incomes.  The overwhelming majority of money and lawyer time is dedicated to business interests and the concerns of the wealthy.

While law schools are not solely responsible for this disparity in access, they play a role.  The singularly important US News and World report rankings weigh heavily the rate of law placement in high paying corporate jobs, and as the deans each admitted this morning, these rankings are everything.  As a consequence, legal education has been designed to make students attractive for firm jobs, the cost of education has risen to match law firm salaries and the shrinking law firm job pipeline has law schools in a panic. 

I suggest that law schools, at least as represented by these deans, have misconstrued their role.  It was telling that even when they discussed clinical legal education, it was in the context of teaching skills that were transferrable to a business related law practice. 

I recognize that the view from academia is not monolithic and that not all law schools or faculty are the same.  There are terrific public interest programs and a few public interest law schools.  These important programs prove the point I am trying to make, rather than take away from it.  There is a large unmet need for lawyers for ordinary people.

The link between law schools and big law feeds the perverse misallocation of legal resources.  Rather than target training for the highest paying elite jobs, schools should look to teach students to serve where the needs are the greatest.  The “academy” may find it less prestigious to teach students who will go into small practices that are affordable to the middle class or into legal services.  It might mean that tuitions should be lower so that the salary pressures are less extreme.   But the social good that comes with greater access for those who are now shut out will be huge.  There must be some gratification in teaching students to make a career out of finding justice and service. 


Jun 04


Defeat Poverty DC

Now that the District has concluded its budget deliberations, the campaigns for Mayor, Council Chair and Council Members will begin in earnest.   The candidates have already started to appear at Metro stops, neighborhood events and on the doorsteps of voters.   They will be talking up their respective abilities to address the District’s budget woes.

 Serious poverty reduction has not been a campaign issue in many years.   As we have seen from the last several budget cycles, there are no political consequences when the Mayor or Council cuts programs to support people living in poverty.  The press applauds reductions to the safety-net as “financial responsibility.”

 Defeat Poverty DC has been launched to change that dynamic.   It is a grass roots effort to get every candidate to state with particularity on the record what she or he will do to help reduce or eliminate poverty.  To become involved, go to:

 If you attend a candidate forum or meet a candidate on a street corner, ask them what they will do to defeat poverty or put a placard in your window.   Imagine the impact that it will have on the policies of a candidate if she or he sees this sign in the windows of prospective voters:


To get a printer friendly copy of the window placard, CLICK HERE.  

Jun 01


One-Year Anniversary of

On June 1, 2009, Legal Aid launched this blog. It was our goal to raise issues related to equal justice, promote public policy changes that improved the lives of people living in poverty and to keep in better touch with our supporters and friends.

We have posted 149 entries over the last year. Many have discussed cases or projects; others have urged action to bring about changes in agencies, the courts or the law or focused on general access to justice issues. The blog had more than 9700 visits over the last year and 178 people subscribe to receive our posts through e-mail.

As we pass this anniversary, we ask for your help. Please let us know what you think. Your views are important to us, so some constructive feedback on how we are doing would be greatly appreciated. You can post a comment on the blog or email Sandra Read-Brown at Thank you for reading