LSC Funding: Abstract Concept, Concrete Effects
Blog Author: Erik Cole, TALS Executive Director
Changing Tennessee one Life at a Time
Last year, the Cleveland office of Legal Aid of East Tennessee served 342 low-income, elderly, and abused Tennesseans with critical legal assistance. As Executive Director Dave Yoder recently told the Cleveland Daily Banner “Many of the people we serve have no other place to turn.” Tragically, later this year, the LAET Cleveland office may be forced to close due to dramatic impending budget cuts. These cuts, described Yoder, will mean less access to potentially life-saving legal help for many East Tennesseans.
Many Tennesseans have stories to share about the powerful changes LAET helped make in their lives. For instance, one mother, ‘Anne,’ came to LAET after years of abuse from her husband when he suddenly turned his aggression on their 12 year-old daughter. Finally Anne had had enough. Thanks to their experience in dealing with legal issues related to domestic violence, LAET was able to help Anne get a divorce and a settlement, freeing her from a terrible situation. “She came back in to visit us later,” Yoder shared, “and told us she never realized what it would be like to not wake up hearing the screams of her daughters terrified their dad had come home.”
Nowhere else to turn
Without local legal aid programs in small and rural communities, like Cleveland, vulnerable Tennesseans may never learn about legal aid services. Or, people at risk may wait longer to seek help when faced with a long drive to Chattanooga, Nashville, or Memphis. Budget cuts hit rural areas (with few private attorneys to provide supplementary pro bono support) particularly hard.
Budget cuts to LAET have already forced the program to lay off valuable long-time staff, which means less assistance to go around. So now, if a client does make it into the office, they may have to wait longer to be served, or may have to be placed with a pro bono lawyer instead of with legal aid. For victims of domestic violence, any delay can be dangerous. For those with consumer or health insurance issues, any delay can be costly.
Community Support, Community Values
While Congress debates the debt ceiling and next year’s federal budget, it is important to keep in mind LAET clients like Anne. Federal funding cuts to the Legal Services Corporation seem like abstract concepts, but the realities of their influence are magnified in local communities when offices close and staff are laid off.
Yoder explained that budget cuts don’t just impact individuals, but whole communities and businesses. “(Legal aid) is a resource that really helps everyone. If you are a business owner with an employee stuck in an abusive relationship, and that abusive spouse comes into your business, it’s going to have an impact on your business,” Yoder said. Legal aid provides many civil legal interventions, but domestic violence cases are priority issues due to their urgency and impact on victims, families, emergency workers, and entire communities.
Additionally, with sixteen legal aid offices across the state, federal budget cuts could cause significant loss of service to rural areas beyond East Tennessee. In many towns, the legal aid office is a major part of the town square or courthouse area. They’re community fixtures, service providers, employment opportunities for legal professionals and support staff, and engines that drive local pro bono participation.
What can I do?
It’s important to communicate with Congress the effects further cuts to LSC funding will have on low-income, elderly, and rural individuals in your community. You can also share this information with friends and colleagues. Find your Representative here.
- Erik Cole, TALS Executive Director