WASHINGTON -- Legal aid programs for the poor are laying off lawyers and curtailing activities because of federal budget cuts, at the very time when demand for their expertise is growing as a result of imminent changes in welfare, Medicaid, housing and immigration laws.
Hit particularly hard are 16 national organizations that provide specialized legal advice to lawyers handling an immense variety of cases in neighborhood offices around the country. Congress already has cut the budget for these "national support centers" by 24 percent this year, to $8 million, and most of them expect to receive no federal money next year.
The budget cuts reflect the conviction of many Republicans in Congress that legal aid lawyers promote a left-wing agenda through lobbying and litigation. The House has voted to impose new restrictions that would, for example, prohibit legal aid lawyers from participating in any "litigation, lobbying or rule-making involving efforts to reform a state or federal welfare system."
"The only thing less popular than a poor person these days is a poor person with a lawyer," said Jonathan D. Asher, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Denver.
But Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif., sees the situation far differently. "The Legal Services Corp. is more focused on advancing grand social causes than on helping the poor with ordinary legal problems," he said, referring to the private, nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1974 to finance legal aid for poor people in civil cases.
The federal program distributes money to 323 legal service organizations with a total of 1,200 offices around the country. In general, a person is eligible for free legal services if he or she has income of less than $9,338 a year, and a family of four qualifies if its income is less than $18,938.