Thoughts on Philanthropy

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People are buzzing about Peter Buffett’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, which takes a thought-provoking look at the failures of the “charitable-industrial complex” in solving our biggest global challenges.

New York TimesOne of Mr. Buffett’s most provocative observations is that philanthropy has become a self-perpetuating growth industry because government, businesses and nonprofits are “all searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left.” I take his point. Too many philanthropic and government dollars are spent fixing problems that government created in the first place. Those of us in the civil legal services world have been tackling this issue for decades. For example, government funding supports our health law practice, in which NYLAG attorneys spend a lot of time appealing denials of Medicare/Medicaid benefits for clients who need and are legally entitled to them. If our healthcare system was in better shape, we would not need to intervene. Similarly, we have seen a huge need for civil legal services in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, driven in part by limitations in the government‘s system for reimbursing victims of natural disasters. By correcting flaws in these systems at the source, we could alleviate suffering and become more efficient in the process.

Mr. Buffett also questions whether philanthropy’s role as today’s “it” vehicle for fixing the world’s ills, arm-in-arm with the application of business principles like “Return on Investment,” is really valid. His candor is wonderful, and he forces us to think about which methods of measurement can and cannot be applied to alleviating injustice and human suffering. While I agree with many of his points, I do think that a business perspective and solid metrics are valuable tools to create effective public-private philanthropy. It is important that we find a common language to understand why some programs are more effective than others. Entities like the Robin Hood Foundation and our own Mayor Michael Bloomberg are great role models for doing good, and doing it based on business models of measured growth, accountability and innovation.

Mr. Buffett ends his Op-Ed by admitting that he is not really calling for an end to capitalism to solve the problems of inequity and poverty, he just wants it leavened with a good dose of “humanism.” In fact, he uses the language of finance to envision an imaginative new beginning: “Foundation dollars should be the best ‘risk capital’ out there.” From my perspective, one way to do this is to recognize that civil legal services bring enormous value to major poverty-fighting initiatives. Building free legal services into the ground floor of these programs can prevent a host of problems from appearing down the road, dramatically increasing the impact of health, welfare, employment and other efforts.

Since capitalism isn’t dead, I might add that from an investment standpoint, civil legal services deliver a return on investment of six dollars for every one dollar spent. More importantly, though, at the human level, these services can keep the roof over a vulnerable family’s heads, put food on their table, and provide them with access to life-saving healthcare.

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

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Refreshing News on a Hot Day

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On another sweltering July day, as media reports swirled about stalemates in Washington, turbulence in the Middle East, and a controversial jury decision in Florida, one piece of good news went underreported. This past Monday, President Obama welcomed former President George H.W. Bush back to the White House to celebrate the Points of Light Foundation, an organization created by Mr. Bush in 1989 to honor volunteer service. The day got even better when Obama announced the creation of a new federal task force to find more ways to widen public and private volunteerism toward tackling national priorities.

Volunteerism is a uniquely American pastime. In the 24 years since Points of Light’s founding, the number of Americans who volunteer has increased by more than 60 per cent. Equally impressive is the fact that both teens and older Americans are now 40 percent more likely to volunteer than these same age groups were in 1989.

Nowhere is the volunteer spirit more evident than in the legal profession, where the concept of “pro bono” has become central to the life of a lawyer. New York broke new ground in 2012, when Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman announced that 50 hours of pro bono service will now be a requirement for admission to the New York State Bar. Taking it one step further, the Chief Judge has also actively promoted an initiative that would encourage every licensed attorney to perform 50 hours of pro bono service annually, and would require that they report their pro bono work as part of the bi-annual reregistration process. Both measures are designed to help address the needs of the poor by increasing the availability of the free legal services throughout the State.

NYLAG could not exist without our volunteers. If you walk through our offices, you will see volunteer attorneys, law students, college and even high school students working together, alongside NYLAG’s paid professional staff.  In partnership with law schools, we run intensive year-long clinics for law students. Supervised and mentored by NYLAG attorneys, these students advocate on behalf of clients while gaining practical legal skills. Every year, over 800 volunteers donate more than 100,000 hours to NYLAG, vastly expanding our ability to serve clients. We simply could not serve 50,000 people each year without them.

The heat wave is a great excuse to give a little back to the most vulnerable among us. You can help by donating your time to a local nonprofit that helps people find shelter from the blistering heat, or one that provides access to the nutritional and health care services they need to stay well. Check in on your elderly neighbors to make sure they have adequate air-conditioning, or that they  can get to another location, such as an NYC Cooling Center, if a/c is not available at home. Maybe keep a few extra bottles of water in your bag for an especially wilted fellow subway traveler. Whatever you do, you’ll feel refreshed.

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

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A Good Week in Washington

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Yesterday, the United States Senate voted to approve legislation that would overhaul the nation’s immigration policies, creating a path to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. The historic 68-32 vote to approve the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill marks a significant step for comprehensive immigration reform, which NYLAG has long supported. The mere fact that 14 Republicans reached across the aisle to pass this bill is telling of our lawmakers’ abilities to collaborate across party lines. NYLAG applauds the bipartisan spirit of the Senate, and it is my hope that the House of Representatives will follow the Senate’s example. I am especially proud of New York’s Senator Schumer for negotiating such a comprehensive measure.

The bill itself, as I have mentioned in previous posts, contains many new provisions that early on, NYLAG advocated for through targeted communications with numerous elected officials. Click here to view NYLAG’s CIR Framework.

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

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One Year Later: Time to Build on DACA’s Success

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June 15th, marks the one-year anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a landmark program initiated by President Obama to grant undocumented young immigrants relief from deportation and the opportunity to obtain employment and an education. For many DACA grantees, this has been a chance to step out of the shadows and better their lives.

NYLAG had long advocated the granting of deferred action status to undocumented youth, and worked closely with the Administration and elected officials to make the new directive a reality. Before the President’s pen was dry, NYLAG had begun a community outreach campaign, getting the word out through fliers, publicity, social media, and a designated DACA Hotline – and conducting scores of meetings and workshops to educate and advise potential DACA applicants and their parents. We have so far reached out to thousands of people, advised more than 1,100 individuals, and assisted over 400 people in applying for DACA, with most resulting in approval. NYLAG has also taken on particularly complex cases, such as representing individuals in removal proceedings. In addition, we screen all applicants and their families for all other forms of immigration relief, and in the process often find alternative avenues by which to legalize a client’s status. Once applicants obtain employment authorization, NYLAG is able to refer them to a unique program that helps put underserved individuals facing serious barriers to employment on the path to meaningful, sustainable careers.

The one-year anniversary of DACA gives us the chance to look back at the success of the program and evaluate it, especially now, as a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which includes an expedited path to citizenship for young DREAMers, makes its way through Congress.

No doubt, DACA is a great achievement and a great step forward, but building on what we have learned, NYLAG’s immigration attorneys have identified a number of ways that the program could be streamlined and made more accessible to eligible young people, including the following:

Temporary Protected Status: A large segment of youth potentially eligible for DACA was inadvertently barred from applying for these benefits because of their Temporary Protected Status (TPS). This includes those who came to the U.S. from Haiti after the earthquake, who cannot apply for DACA because they hold TPS. NYLAG believes this should be changed so that TPS does not prevent them from applying. We have lobbied directly with Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and members of Congress; and created an online petition that has generated 1,500 signatures. (Click here to sign.)

Education: NYLAG attorneys frequently encounter young people with undocumented parents who are afraid of applying for DACA because they do not want their parents to be discovered and subjected to removal proceedings. NYLAG has been working to educate families about DACA so they know it will not affect their status, and we urge other advocacy and community organizations to join us in this critical effort.

Age limits: NYLAG believes the DACA age limit should be expanded or done away with altogether. The present requirement that applicants be under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012 is arbitrary and disqualifies a great many candidates who would be otherwise eligible. We would have the rule amended to make eligible anyone who was under 16 years of age at the time of entry and who satisfies all other DACA requirements.

Immigration fraud: Uninformed immigrants have been scammed out of thousands of dollars with false promises of status and false documents. As comprehensive federal immigration reform moves forward, immigrants must be aware of those trying to take advantage of them. We applaud the efforts of USCIS to combat immigration fraud and we encourage the further development of those initiatives. NYLAG will also continue to educate and assist New Yorkers in avoiding immigration fraud.

DACA documents: The documentation requirements for DACA are unnecessarily strict and unbending – for instance, the rigid requirements of direct evidence of continuous residence in the United States since 2007, which many undocumented individuals who have lived under the radar for many years simply do not possess.

These relatively simple steps will go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of countless young immigrants poised to contribute their talent, energy and commitment to the country they love.

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

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Outrage

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I would like to take this opportunity to express my grief and outrage over the recent murder of Marc Carson and the continuing increase in bias-related attacks against members of the LGBT community. It is unacceptable that this month alone there have been six attacks. Unfortunately, anti-LGBT violence too often goes unreported, so that number is most likely even higher.

Everyone deserves the right to feel safe in expressing their sexual orientation and gender identity without fear of harassment or physical assault. This is a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

Hatred and intolerance against any group of people is done to silence those who are marginalized in our society. We cannot be silent, about this hate crime, or any other.

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

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Mediation for Low-income New Yorkers: They Deserve the Choice

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MediationNYLAG prides itself on its excellent litigation skills, particularly in complex cases involving domestic violence, where a talented litigator is necessary to ensure the safety of the victim. However, we have also long recognized the value of alternative dispute resolution for certain other matters, which not only saves court and attorney resources, but can ultimately create more workable solutions for clients.

In the corporate world, mediation is becoming an increasingly preferred alternative to protracted and expensive litigation. For people of means, mediation has also become a popular choice for handling family law matters such as divorces, which are particularly well suited to the process. Sadly, though, mediation is not currently an option for most low-income families. Those who are lucky enough to secure pro bono or low bono representation still end up litigating their cases in court, while the vast majority are forced to litigate without an attorney.

Recognizing both the need and the value, I am thrilled to report that NYLAG is the first free legal service organization in New York City to launch a Mediation Project. This pilot program will create a model for providing free family law mediation to low-income New Yorkers, evaluate the effectiveness of these services, and establish best practices that can be applied to other organizations across the nation.

NYLAG’s project is also unique in that we help the parties find pro bono or low bono attorneys who provide legal advice and review any agreement that the parties may reach, strengthening the mediation.

Mediation is far less expensive and much faster than litigation, and it can improve communications between parties, such as parents, who will need to continue to be in contact with each other in the future. And data supports its effectiveness, as this sampling of surveys shows:

  • 69% of participants in mediation report high satisfaction compared to 47% of people who go to court.
  • Parties comply with 85% of mediated child support but with only 50% of court-ordered child support.
  • 28% of the nonresidential parents who mediated were still seeing their children on a weekly basis 12 years after the initial agreement, compared to 9% of parents who were assigned by the study to resolve their divorce or custody dispute through litigation, and 11% for the national average of litigated custody cases.
  • 52% of nonresidential parents who mediated talked to their children on a weekly basis 12 years later, compared to just 14% of nonresidential parents who litigated, and 18% for the national average.
  • Couples going to court reported spending 134 percent more for their divorces than those in the mediation sample.

These are real-life results that can have an enormous, positive impact on poor families who deserve the same choice of legal process as their wealthier counterparts.

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

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At the six-month milestone, this race is not over

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seagate 12_4Superstorm Sandy is a marathon not a sprint, and six months later we are still running.

To date over 4,000 storm victims have received free civil legal services from NYLAG – services that have helped them gain access to benefits, avoid myriad pitfalls, address injustices and begin to rebuild their lives. Due to our flexible funding streams, NYLAG is able to serve not only the abject poor, but also low-income clients, as well as undocumented immigrants. But the race is far from over. At the six-month milestone, our work is shifting from advising clients in immediate crises to helping them resolve more complex, long-term legal problems – and handle the huge volume of requests as these problems become more widespread and entrenched. Here is some of what we are seeing:

  • Approximately 60% of the renters and homeowners NYLAG has assisted with FEMA applications received less than half of the amount to which we believe they are entitled, requiring an appeal.
  • We are beginning to see substantial numbers of recoupment notices issued by FEMA to disaster victims, who the agency believes it improperly paid – a number we expect to go up.
  • 50% of our clients with private insurance complain that their insurance company is not responding in a timely manner, and even more are receiving offers 35-50% below what they need to repair their homes.
  • NYLAG has been inundated with cases representing tenants involving landlords who fail to make repairs, grant rent abatements, end leases on uninhabitable apartments and return security deposits.
  • For those who own their homes, many who were granted a period of forbearance on their mortgages are unable to pay the accumulated lump sum of back payments and are in danger of default.
  • Many disaster victims are now saddled with debt, and may be forced to consider bankruptcy, while instances of contractor and other disaster-related fraud are on the rise.
  • NYLAG has encountered a significant number of storm victims who lost their jobs after their employer sustained major storm damage, and now need help applying for public benefits such as food stamps, Public Assistance, and Medicare/Medicaid in order to avoid abject poverty.
  • Many of the communities hardest hit by Sandy include high immigrant and non-English speaking populations, who out of fear and isolation are struggling to access benefits in the wake of the storm.

While client needs and levels of service continue to evolve, we know that the types of legal issues we are seeing on the ground will not be resolved in weeks, or even months. Other disasters have taught us that each legal problem can spark a cascade of related problems with consequences for years afterwards. NYLAG wants to make sure that no storm victim is forced to run this race alone.

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

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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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Thank you, Gang of Eight, For Hearing Us (But Can We Talk?)

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webI want to applaud the bipartisan group of Senators, including New York’s own Chuck Schumer, who pulled off the nearly impossible by actually bringing a sweeping immigration reform bill to the table. The bill is a great starting point and contains many provisions that would alleviate hardships suffered by immigrants as a result of antiquated and unfair laws and procedures.

The 800-page draft legislation includes several provisions I am proud to say NYLAG brought to the attention of the Administration and legislators through a targeted advocacy campaign – click here to read our Framework for Comprehensive Reform – including:

  • The classification of the spouses and children of Legal Permanent Residents as “immediate relatives,” replacing a process mired in backlogs with a sensible approach that will keep families together.
  • A new “derivative” provision that will further strengthen families: this original NYLAG concept grants the derivatives of immediate relatives the same status (without a separate petition) as the principal beneficiary, replacing the current several-year waiting period.
  • The inclusion of immigrants who hold Temporary Protected Status (due to unsafe conditions in their home countries) as eligible for legalization. NYLAG has written to Secretary Napolitano urging such a change in current immigration policies, and we started a petition to support it. Click here to read and sign.
  • The creation of a mandate for the appointment of counsel to children, the mentally disabled, and other vulnerable individuals in removal proceedings, along with the restoration of judicial discretion and the lowering of the bar to grant waivers in removal proceedings.

There are other provisions in the Senate bill we also endorse, including:

  • A good version of the Dream Act to help young people who were brought here illegally as children speedily become citizens, including removal of the arbitrary age cap requirements.
  • The removal of the one-year bar on asylum filings, an onerous requirement that left far too many legitimate asylum applicants without access to relief.
  • The creation of a V-visa, which allows individuals with approved family-based petitions to live and work in the US while waiting for their green cards.
  • The creation of a Registered Provisional Immigrant status to legalize the status of the over 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

Unfortunately, however, the bill also includes ideas that are seriously misguided, and may even make meaningful reform unattainable, such as:

  • The use of border security goals as a trigger for when Registered Provisional Immigrants will be allowed to become lawful permanent residents – a provision that appears nebulous and unattainable.
  • The establishment of an indeterminate period of “temporary status,” thereby creating another sub-class of immigrants. This will leave millions in limbo, with no certainty or predictability for when their citizenship will be granted.
  • The elimination of the family-based visa category of sibling petitions, a step backwards.
  • The lack of any provisions recognizing permanent partners who are in a committed, intimate relationship.
  • The creation of new grounds of inadmissibility and deportability related to an already long list of grounds that serve as insurmountable barriers to a great many applicants.

I sincerely thank the Gang of Eight for bringing our country one huge step closer to the reformation of our immigration system. This is landmark legislation in many respects, and a remarkable political achievement. The devil of course is in the details, and NYLAG will continue to be a fervent champion of getting those details right, so we can move forward on the path to a smart, workable and just immigration policy.

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

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Six Things Considered: What NPR Missed

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NYLAG attorneys know first-hand how crucial disability benefits are for eligible families.

NYLAG attorneys know first-hand how crucial disability benefits are for eligible families.

A furor is raging – as it should, over an NPR series on Social Security disability programs that does a grave injustice to the millions of Americans who live with disabilities. The series, “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America,” and an accompanying This American Life episode, is inaccurate and incomplete, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. It mistakenly represents disability status as something that people want because it is a good “deal,” suggests that parents might hold back a child academically to keep their disability benefits, and questions whether people who “look healthy” ought to be receiving disability benefits. It sounds the alarm about skyrocketing increases in those receiving benefits, but fails to report on the demographic trends driving that growth, or the fact that once these factors play out, the programs are projected to decline in coming years. Because of these and other mischaracterizations, I thought I would try to give you some of the facts as we see them at NYLAG.

NYLAG attorneys work to ensure that eligible disabled people receive benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, which provides income supplements to people who have contributed enough in payroll taxes to be eligible if they become disabled before reaching retirement age, and under the Supplemental Security Income Program, which helps low-income disabled children and adults to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. We know only too well the challenges the disabled face, and the vital need for these programs. Whether you have seen or plan to see the NPR series, here are six points to consider.

1. These programs provide vital support to millions of disabled Americans, but that support is far from a windfall for those who receive it. It is a lifeline keeping millions of people from deep poverty and homelessness.

2. It’s not easy to qualify for disability benefits. We know because we represent clients who are eligible, and more than half are denied initially, and require an appeal. The rules are strict, and only the most severely impaired qualify.

3. The expense of caring for a child with a disability can be crushing. The income support from the Supplemental Security Income Program makes it possible for many children to remain at home with their families instead of needing to be in an institution to receive their care.

4. There is not a direct correlation between a child’s academic performance and the loss of benefits. In fact, the Supplemental Security Income Program helps families to access services that support educational development.

5. Just because someone looks healthy does not mean she is healthy. Today the leading causes of disability both in the U.S. and around the world are largely invisible: mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders such as carpel tunnel syndrome and other labor-related injuries.

6. Demographics, not lenient disability standards, account for the large increase in the Social Security rolls – trends like aging baby boomers, more women in the workforce, and Social Security’s rising retirement age.

I am a big fan of NPR, and most of the time I think they do a great job of reporting on complex and sensitive issues in a way that is balanced and fair. But this time they got it wrong.

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

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