The United States has never done a good job of ensuring that poor people have adequate legal representation, especially in civil matters. Now, under President Donald Trump, it is going to get a lot worse.
Indeed, it is possible to read two of his early budget proposals as a tacit commitment to eviscerating the already minimal legal services available to people with low incomes.
Eighty percent of people with low incomes (defined as up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines) have difficulty securing legal counsel or accessing the civil court system in a meaningful way. In fact, 70 percent of all defendants in civil suits lack a lawyer. Put another way: If you get sued, there is a nearly three in four chance you will be representing yourself, regardless of your income level. And there is no right to counsel in noncriminal cases.
For more than 40 years, the United States has had an existing government program, the Legal Services Corporation, that provides funds for legal aid services at more than 800 locations. Through LSC-funded programs, people with annual incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty threshold are eligible for representation in civil cases for critical needs—things like obtaining restraining orders to protect domestic violence victims, preventing foreclosures, and ensuring elderly people aren’t scammed by lenders. However, it has always been abysmally underfunded, even during the Obama era. At its current level of funding, for every person legal aid offices help, they have to turn away another.
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Now, Trump’s presidential budget proposes to eliminate funding for LSC entirely.
Cutting LSC will starve local legal aid offices of the largest funding source they have. The remaining funding is a patchwork quilt of state and local money and charitable donations. Because of that, many legal aid offices would see an immediate and massive reduction in their ability to assist lower-income people. Cutting LSC also cuts down on the ability of private law firms to provide pro bono services, because legal aid offices take a first pass at the cases; determine whether they have merit and whether the individual is eligible for assistance; and help train private-sector lawyers on how to represent clients in the areas they serve.
Besides being absolutely monstrously mean-spirited, targeting LSC is a particularly short-sighted way to cut costs. Study after study shows that legal aid ultimately delivers more in benefits than it costs. An example: For every dollar spent in Pennsylvania on legal aid, all state residents receive an estimated $11 in quantifiable outcomes and savings. But let’s face it—the nature of these sort of cuts isn’t to save money. Rather, it’s to send a message to people on the margins of society that they don’t matter and don’t deserve access to the justice system.
Trump isn’t just sending that message with his proposed LSC cuts. His education budget also makes that clear.
Back in March, Trump released a thumbnail sketch of his education budget, which promised a 13 percent overall cut while allocating $1.4 billion to “school choice” initiatives. It wasn’t clear at that time where the cuts would come from, but now that a fuller picture of the budget has been revealed, we can see that it includes, among other moves, cutting the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.
PSLF was created to encourage students to enter into public service jobs, which typically pay much less than their private sector counterparts. After you spend ten years in that public service job—and make 120 loan payments during that time—the balance of your loans is forgiven. The PSLF is a lifeline for law students who want to work at legal aid offices, as a public defender, or at other nonprofits that serve low-income individuals. Those types of jobs will never allow them to pay back the $140,000 in loans that the average law student has to take out to get through school.
Eliminating the PSLF will have a direct effect on the ability of law students to choose jobs in the public sector. Essentially, it will help prevent low-cost legal services and public defenders from attracting talent, because law students will need to seek private sector work in order to pay their loan debt. It also ensures that many students will not seek degrees because they know they won’t ever be able to pay the student loan costs. That means that lower-income students lose access to things like law schools as well. (It isn’t at all clear what would happen to the roughly 400,000 individuals who have already made their ten years’ worth of payments and would be eligible for forgiveness beginning in October of this year.)
Read together, it’s painfully clear that this administration has a vision of depriving lower-income people of any resources. Trump has already proposed doing this directly in the form of massive Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts. Cuts to things like LSC and PSLF are indirect ways to do the same thing. These maneuvers would defund the organizations that can provide legal assistance to the poor, and prevent people from being able to obtain degrees that would help them provide legal assistance to the poor. Depriving lower-income people of this sort of repayment plan would also, of course, prevent them from obtaining degrees.
The net result: Poor people go without meaningful access to the courts. That means they have no way to protect themselves against rapacious lenders who prey upon low-income and elderly people, no way to protect themselves against landlords who maintain dangerously subpar properties, no way to keep their homes, no way to obtain restraining orders against violent partners, and more.
Meanwhile, the rich and the super-rich will see massive tax cuts to the tune of $275,000 annually. Trump will break the backs of the poor to feed the rich, and he’s going to do it in every way he can.