Access-to-justice gap impacts the poor and working poor alike

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This week, I read a troubling article in the New York Times on a recent Bloomberg administration study that found that “about 46 percent of New Yorkers were making less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold, a benchmark used to describe people who are not officially poor but who still struggle to get by. That represents a rise of more than three percentage points since 2009, when the nation’s recession officially ended.”  (Click here to read the article.)

23 years ago, as a young attorney working to protect elderly New Yorkers from financial and physical mistreatment, I was especially struck by the gap in the availability of civil legal services for those living on the edge of poverty. NYLAG was founded to provide free legal services to low-income New Yorkers, foregoing federal funding so that we could serve the near-poor as well as those individuals in abject poverty – a distinction among other service providers that sets us apart to this day.

The mayor’s report underscores how the needs of the poor and near poor continue to intersect – and why it is vital that we find ways to provide legal assistance across the continuum of those in financial distress. The economic downturn that started nearly five years ago, and Superstorm Sandy that hit just six months ago, are prime examples of how outside forces can thrust people who are doing okay, getting by and paying their bills, into financial crisis. And looming large just up ahead are the growing ranks of Baby Boomers increasingly facing a web of legal hurdles as economic factors and the impact of aging makes them vulnerable to eviction or foreclosure, consumer debt, health care legal needs and more.

NYLAG exists because we know that low-income individuals can improve their lives significantly if given access to the justice system.  Those who represent themselves are considerably more likely to lose their cases than those who have qualified attorneys.  Poor or near-poor, they should not be forced to navigate the complexities of the civil justice system alone.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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