What is Poverty Law?

Poverty law is the practice of law as it intersects with the less privileged in society. The practice of poverty law concerns itself with making sure that poor people and the disadvantaged are treated fairly under the law. Poverty law isn’t always representing clients in court. It might include analysis of issues that impact the poor. It also might include advocacy for changes in laws and policies.

Poverty law is a broad term that includes many different government entities, private businesses and groups and subjects. Lawyers that focus on poverty law work on many different subjects in a variety of forums:

Administrative law

Poverty law aims to make sure that the poor have fair access to government assistance programs. Lawyers advocate for legal changes that help the poor receive the benefits that they need. They also aim to help individuals make sure that they receive the benefits that they’re due under existing law.

Clients may need assistance making sure that they have fair access to Medicaid, cash assistance programs, food assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Insurance Program (SNAP) and access to housing. Individuals who request public assistance may need to attend hearings to determine their eligibility. They may also need to defend themselves against allegations of improper access to these benefits. Poverty lawyers may help individuals fill out routine application forms, or they may help with complicated matters at contested hearings.

Civil rights

Poverty lawyers protect the civil rights of the poor. They make sure that law enforcement doesn’t target individuals based on their race or socioeconomic status. Civil rights include the right to assistance of counsel in a criminal case, the right to vote and the right to a fair trial. Poverty lawyers do the important work of ensuring that low-income individuals can exercise their civil rights and that their rights are protected under the law.

When lawyers work on civil rights cases, they’re often able to create change. For example, in the Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc., v. United States case, the Supreme Court banned racial discrimination in public accommodations. Lawyers advocated for the court’s decision. The Heart of Atlanta case immediately had a positive impact on low-income individuals throughout the United States who were suddenly able to choose freely among hotels without discrimination. Today, poverty lawyers might perform similar work making sure that mortgage lenders don’t discriminate against the poor or discriminate on the basis of race or any other protected characteristic.

Throughout American history, poverty lawyers have advocated for some of the most significant, lasting change in civil rights. From the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868, to the 2017 case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District which raises issues about the educational rights of students with challenges, poverty law attorneys may address any issue that relates to civil rights. There continue to be new civil rights issues and concerns in American society. Poverty attorneys are often at the forefront of identifying these issues, arguing to the court and raising public awareness about civil rights issues that impact the poor.

Criminal law

Criminal law and poverty law often intersect. Sometimes, individuals who face allegations of receiving government benefits that they don’t deserve have to answer to criminal charges. Poverty lawyers may help clients defend against charges of welfare fraud or health insurance fraud.

An example of change

Poverty law might also touch on criminal law in the respect that poverty lawyers might address criminal laws that disproportionately impact the poor. For example, Michigan’s driving laws recently came under scrutiny because of steep driver’s responsibility fees. These responsibility fees often resulted in large number of driver’s license suspensions for low-income individuals.

When these individuals drove vehicles without a valid license, they faced criminal charges. Poverty lawyers noticed the disproportionate impact that the law had on low income individuals. They advocated for a change in the law, and lawmakers agreed. Advocates successfully convinced the Michigan Senate to vote to end the fees.

Health law

How a society should regulate health care services and access to health care and insurance is an ongoing question. Poverty lawyers often work to help their clients gain access to the health care that they need while working for large-scale changes in the healthcare system. They might also work on sensitive topics such as priorities for organ transplants.

Abuse and neglect

Parents have a constitutional right to raise their children. The state may not interfere with parental rights except for under extreme circumstances. It’s only when parents are likely to abuse or neglect their children that the state can step in and take custody of a child. This raises a question of when poverty and parenting intersect.

When parents are unable to provide for their children because of low income and a lack of access to resources, poverty lawyers can help parents apply for public services. They can also help parents defend their interests and advocate for their children in abuse and neglect proceedings. Poverty lawyers make sure that the state complies with their obligations to provide rehabilitative services to parents. Poverty lawyers also hold the state to their very high burden of proof to seek to terminate parental rights to a child.

Advocacy

Lobbying is a critical part of poverty law. Poverty law isn’t always about arguing cases in court. Instead, lawyers act as advocates for changes to the laws that make a positive difference in the lives of the poor. Their advocacy might include asking legislators to expand federal benefit programs or address things that might prevent the poor from having fair access to justice such as fair pay for criminal defense lawyers.

Lawyers have done a great deal to address consumer laws that hurt the poor. For example, advocates have succeeded in passing laws that protect the poor from financial exploitation. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects consumers from harassment and threats during debt collection procedures. Another law protects consumers by allowing them to withdraw money from the bank only a short time after making a deposit. These are just a few financial protections that poverty lawyers have secured for the benefit of the poor.

Individual cases and larger problems

The practice of poverty law occurs on both a micro and macro level. Attorneys who work in poverty law might represent clients in individual cases. They might work in one, local area to represent clients that are concentrated in one location.

On the other hand, poverty law attorneys might work in ways that are targeted to bring about change on a larger scale. You might select cases that are high profile and designed to raise public awareness about issues. In addition, you might select cases that are the first of their kind in order to ask judges to make decisions that set precedent for others.

Whatever the focus, poverty lawyers work enthusiastically for justice. They also work for change. Whether you help one client at a time or you work for large-scale changes that help many people, poverty lawyers work for justice.

Why become a Poverty Lawyer?

Poverty law is a great area of practice for individuals who want to use their legal career to try and make a difference. Lawyers in this field of law have the satisfaction of helping those who are vulnerable in society. Poverty lawyers may have a high degree of satisfaction in their career as they work to help individuals and fight for lasting change. Poverty lawyers also have the opportunity to choose to work on issues that matter to them the most.

There are opportunities to practice poverty law throughout the world. Whether you want to travel or you prefer to stay in one location, you can find the right position for you in this area of practice. Many local legal service organizations provide legal help to individuals in a single county or a small region. Other individuals who work on cases with national significance might find themselves frequently traveling for meetings, investigations and court dates.

Using your career to help others

Lawyers are a powerful voice in society. Lawyers who practice poverty law have the opportunity to use their voice in order to help others. Poverty lawyers advocate for change. They represent clients in court and administrative hearings. They help clients one at a time and work for large-scale change through advocacy and cases with national significance.