COVID-19 has created a financial crisis. Pa. legal aid programs help stabilize families | Opinion

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

Before COVID-19, millions of Pennsylvanians struggled to get by each month. Across the Commonwealth, people face barriers to employment or have severe disabilities that keep them from working.

Families face eviction, causing medical problems for children, including asthma and behavioral health issues, and leaving them at greater risk. Senior citizens lack running water and heat in their homes, leaving them vulnerable. These things happen every day, even in the best of times.

These are not the best of times.

COVID-19 and the necessary mitigation measures designed to protect public health have been a one-two punch of devastation for vulnerable households. Many people have lost their jobs and income, making it impossible for them to pay their rent or mortgage. Frontline service workers are risking their health, although many cannot access medical care because of a lack of insurance. Families in crisis are struggling to stay afloat.

Of course, COVID-19 has not affected all households equally. Some of us are fortunate to be able to continue to work uninterrupted from home, but this privilege is not universal.

A recent report from the Federal Reserve shows that 63% of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher worked entirely from home in the last few weeks of March compared to only 20% of workers with a high school degree or less.

The same report found that almost 40% of households who were working in February with household income less than $40,000 per year reported a job loss in March. COVID-19 has compounded the problems people experience, exposing the broken systems that perpetuate inequality and creating a financial and economic crisis. The recovery for these workers will be slow.

While there is no single solution to this crisis, there are vital ways to help vulnerable families weather this storm, including supporting the work of civil legal aid with emergency funding through the CARES Act and increased statewide funding.

Civil legal aid refers to legal services provided at no cost to low-income Pennsylvanians and victims of domestic violence in noncriminal matters where legal representation is necessary to secure a critical need, such as access to shelter, nutrition, or healthcare.

Today, there are many more people eligible for civil legal aid who, only months ago, never imagined they would be eligible or in need of services. In our most recently completed fiscal year, civil legal aid programs in the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network (PLAN) handled 75,000 legal cases, providing exceptional legal representation to the neediest Pennsylvanians.

When low-income Pennsylvanians can access legal representation, they are able to secure their income, housing, health, and families.

Right now, in the midst of this crisis, PLAN programs are helping laid off Pennsylvanians access unemployment compensation, ensuring access to medical insurance and other forms of health care, and navigating housing and utility issues for people in need. This work is helping people across the Commonwealth survive, preventing people from falling into poverty.

There is another benefit to civil legal aid: Civil legal aid helps keep our economy healthy and thriving. In January, the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board released an independent report from experts of Franklin & Marshall College, titled Economic Impact of Civil Legal Aid in Pennsylvania. A key finding from the report is that for every dollar invested in civil legal aid Pennsylvania received $12 in economic benefits.

This economic boost comes in the forms of criminal record expungements that put people back to work and increases the tax base; helping people restore their utility service so they can avoid homelessness, which comes at a great cost; accessing medical care for individuals, to prevent unnecessary hospitalization; and securing safety for survivors of domestic violence, so they can attend school or work.

That is a huge payoff, and it is exactly the kind of stimulus our economy needs right now. During the period looked at by the study, PLAN programs brought more than $171 million in ongoing economic benefits to Pennsylvania. With increased investment from the state budget in PLAN’s exceptional legal aid programs, even greater benefits can be realized.

Unfortunately, current funding for legal aid is insufficient. Even when accounting for inflation, but including other government funding, state funding for legal aid in 2019 is only 1/3 of what it was in 1976! Flat and declining funding has resulted in the reduced ability to serve clients. Currently, only 20% of low-income people needing an attorney for a civil legal problem can obtain one, even though basic human needs are at stake, such as protection from domestic violence or loss of a home. This percentage has declined in recent years.

Now, with greater need stemming from newfound financial insecurity, too many people will not be able to access legal representation that they so desperately need. Increased funding from the state can ensure that, as impact of COVID-19 continues to reverberate, and as our economy suffers as a result, civil legal aid programs can stem the tides of harm. Civil legal aid programs are and always have been here in times of crisis, we simply need additional resources to handle the increased volume of activities created by the crisis.

Thankfully, civil legal aid enjoys broad bipartisan support and we remain hopeful that the General Assembly will provide immediate funding through the CARES Act to address the civil legal needs of Pennsylvanians caused by COVID-19, and will provide sustained long-term funding necessary to support the ongoing work of civil legal aid in Pennsylvania.

If you or someone you know needs civil legal aid, you can find the contact information for your local legal aid provider at: https://palegalaid.net/legal-aid-providers-in-pa . To find out more about civil legal aid, please visit: https://palegalaid.net/statewide-network.

Patrick Cicero is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, Inc. He writes from Harrisburg.