How to save families from losing everything

Community fights ruin from foreclosures
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Story highlights

  • Legal aid access in civil cases like foreclosure helps families avoid economic disaster, writers say
  • They say private and public funding for such emergency help is not keeping pace with need
  • Ensuring civil legal aid helps fight income inequality, saves taxpayers money, they say

Thomas E. Perez is the nation's 26th secretary of labor and a former civil rights attorney. Martha Bergmark is the executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, an organization that seeks to raise awareness of civil legal aid. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)In 2013, Nicole, a 26-year-old single mother in Chicago, represented herself in eviction court. She thought she was agreeing to pay the rent so she could stay in her home, only to find out later she had agreed to an order awarding her landlord possession of the only decent housing she could afford.

She could have lost everything, but she didn't. After taking on her case, the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago appealed and won; Nicole and her two young children could stay in their home. She was lucky: Cases such as hers persist across the country, and most people who don't have access to the same support suffer the consequences.
Thomas E. Perez
Martha Bergmark
We know from new research that where you live can help you get ahead. In a study, Harvard economists found, for example, that good neighborhoods offer access to vital resources -- such as quality education, medical care and nutritious foods -- that are crucial for families' long-term well-being and economic success. In other words, their upward mobility.
    But there's another important resource for our communities that receives less attention -- and is critical to ensuring that families not only stay afloat but move up the economic ladder: civil legal aid. It has long-term benefits, stabilizing families in crisis and saving taxpayers' money in the long run, but we don't do nearly enough to support it.
    For many families that live paycheck to paycheck or hover just above the poverty line, an unexpected event can plunge them into economic hardship. Evictions, foreclosures, child custody hearings, domestic violence -- all these life-changing situations can require legal assistance. But what if you can't afford it?
    Too many families in America end up going to court by themselves -- in more than 70% of civil cases today -- forced to navigate uncertain waters alone, often with devastating outcomes. Because these proceedings are civil, not criminal, there is no guaranteed right to an attorney. And the complexity of the law often stymies ordinary Americans without a lawyers -- particularly for housing issues such as foreclosures, which took a heavy toll during the Great Recession.
    Despite the enormous need for legal help -- and the power of such help to transform lives and level the playing field -- civil legal aid is vastly under-resourced. A recent investigation by the American Lawyer found that the biggest private law firms, an important source of funding for civil legal aid and one with record-high revenues, are currently contributing less than one-tenth of 1% of their revenue to the efforts.
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    Federal funding through the Legal Services Corp., the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation, has declined substantially over the last three decades -- with funding in 2015 barely more than half the level in 1985 measured in real dollars -- even as the number of low-income Americans who can't afford legal assistance has risen during the same period.
    As we search for ways to fight growing income inequality, law firms, foundations and policymakers need to recognize that investment in civil legal aid yields big returns.
    In New York City, where nearly 30,000 families lost their homes to eviction in 2013, there is growing evidence that the outcome of an eviction case depends less on the merits than on whether the family has legal help. One study estimated that in the case of people facing eviction, two-thirds of those who go to court without a lawyer are evicted and often go straight to shelters. By contrast, two-thirds of those with an attorney are able to keep their homes. The link between lack of counsel and economic vulnerability is undeniable.
    Beyond that, the public costs to provide shelter to families that become homeless are significant, as are the increased costs of providing public assistance and health care.
    People also need assistance navigating the legal system in domestic violence cases, and health care, and consumer finance challenges. By investing in civil legal aid programs, we can help improve families' long-term economic security while reining in government costs.
    A New York Task Force study found that every dollar invested in civil legal aid delivers $6 in returns to the state's economy, largely through government savings. For example, eviction defense programs saved New York about $116 million annually in prevented shelter costs in 2011.
    Even so, a landmark study found that less than 20% of low-income Americans get the legal assistance they need when they have a critical civil legal problem.
    Indeed, even though Massachusetts is a national leader in providing civil legal aid, the Boston Bar Association recently reported that the state's civil legal aid programs turn away two out of three people in critical civil cases who need assistance because the programs lack adequate resources.
    To meet the need for legal assistance, community leaders are forging innovative partnerships to help people work through crises, and these have already shown impressive results. For example, in North Carolina, where police found that many domestic violence victims take the first step of reporting abuse but don't take the next step to move out, law enforcement partnered with civil legal aid to create a Victim's Justice Center.
    This pioneer program enables anyone who reports domestic abuse to apply immediately for a protective order with an attorney to escape an abusive partner and find safety.
    Providing more resources for programs such as these would help more people in seemingly hopeless situations get back on their feet. A young woman in Iowa was in an abusive relationship and came close to accepting it as her fate. Instead, after receiving assistance from Iowa Legal Aid, she secured a protective order and gained full custody of her kids. She's now supporting her family as a registered nurse.
    A veteran with mental health issues in New York was hospitalized, fell behind on his rent and found himself out of a home. But with help from Legal Services NYC, he challenged the eviction and applied for a grant to catch up on his payments. He's now back in his home and getting his life in order.
    Reducing economic inequality and strengthening the American middle class may well be the defining challenge of our time. Greater access to legal aid would keep millions of Americans from falling further behind and give them a chance for a stronger foothold in the middle class.