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Guest column: Budget cuts could threaten legal services for states poor
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We recently helped a mother and her five children avoid eviction from their home that was scheduled to happen the following day. All in a day, our attorney found and pointed out flaws in previous legal proceedings, negotiating with the Department of Community Affairs that oversaw the housing unit our client and her family lived in. The family of six was spared from being homeless and allowed to stay in their home until a new lease they had in the works began.

Consider the consequences had our attorney not stepped in. Many people with extremely meager means like the ones we serve don’t have the support network that others of us do: the parent, friend, relative to move in with in a time of need. The mother would need to find a place where she and her five children could sleep safely. The children would go off to school in the morning from an unstable environment, to say the least.

It’s imperative that attorneys like ours are available to intervene in cases where people could otherwise not afford a lawyer. An estimated 1.7 million Georgians live in poverty. Meeting and protecting life’s most basic needs — food, shelter, employment, education, health care, safety from an abuser — often requires legal help for people one upset away from a crisis. Georgia Legal Services attorneys and staff helped over 12,000 people last year.

More than half of our funding at Georgia Legal Services Program is from the Legal Services Corporation, an entity that could be defunded if the latest proposed budget goes into effect. Cutting funding for LSC would hardly make a dent in the federal budget, given that it accounts for roughly one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the total.

Such a cut would hit states like Georgia with large rural areas hard, where families already struggle to find the legal help they need. Legal services programs help assure fairness in the justice system, regardless of how much money a person has.

Funding for civil legal aid organizations like Georgia Legal Services Program has been through drastic ups and downs since the inception of the federally funded Legal Services Corporation in the 1970s. But thanks to broad bipartisan support, funding for the corporation has endured, though current funding is still less than half of the peak federal funds that once existed in 1981.

Despite funding constraints, the number of people that need our services continues to grow. Nearly 1 in 5 Georgians live in poverty; that’s an annual income of $24,300 for a family of four. That’s roughly one-third higher than the state’s poverty rate was in 2000.

These are uncertain times in our country. Perhaps the most at risk of being negatively impacted by changes to the federal budget changes are poor, rural communities like the ones we serve, whose ability to feed their families, stay in their homes, see a doctor when they need to and obtain so many more of life’s necessities often depends on access to a lawyer. Looking forward, we’re unsure if the government programs that currently offer the help our most vulnerable population needs will remain.

But what we do know is that the needs of our clients persist, and we need your support now more than ever to help. Find out more about our work at www.glsp.org or by calling 1-800-498-9469.

Wendy Glasbrenner manages the Gainesville and Athens offices for Georgia Legal Services, a nonprofit organization providing free legal services to low-income Georgia residents.

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