Poverty Law and Practice Clinic
Since its founding in 1980, the Poverty Law and Practice Clinic has represented 8,000 welfare recipients and 4,800 unemployment claimants, and preserved an estimated $20 million in income for those clients and their families. Professor Jim Rowan, who heads the clinic, believes that successfully fighting poverty requires a two-pronged approach, so in addition to representing individual clients with welfare, housing and employment needs, the clinic also assists community-based organizations that give poor people a powerful voice for self-determination.
The two complement each other, and provide a broad base of experience for students, he says: “The individual work is essential to make that collective work real and to find issues that galvanize groups of people.”
Students in this clinic, who represent both organizations and individuals, appear before administrative, legislative and judicial decision, assisting with legal needs in the areas of employment, housing and welfare. For example:
- An immigrant mother and father, with three children born in the United States, were struggling to improve their lives. The mother was trying to take English classes while getting her high school equivalency degree, but was repeatedly denied childcare benefits by the welfare system because her husband’s income was unpredictable. A street peddler of cheap goods he found or bought, he sometimes earned $500 a week, sometimes $50 a week. “The welfare system couldn’t cope with his erratic income any more than his family could cope with the erratic nature of the welfare system,” says Professor Rowan, whose students helped the family obtain the benefits they needed.
- A Haitian cab driver was fired from his job after a marijuana test allegedly came back positive. “It was sloppily done, and he was sure it was an erroneous result,” says Professor Rowan. When the clinic proved to the state unemployment board that the cab company didn’t provide the required re-test, they were able to obtain benefits the driver had been denied.
- Students were successful in helping a welfare mother continue to receive benefits. She’d been removed from the welfare rolls for failing to report income she’d earned during a period she was trying to escape a physically abusive husband.
Professor Rowan, who is nationally recognized for his long commitment to alleviating poverty through legal action, cherishes a poster that former students gave to him, which hangs in his law school office. Quoting Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic archbishop in Brazil known for championing the poor, it says: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
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