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Public Interest Spotlight: Bar Leads in Fight Against Cuts to Services for the Poor

Sara Jacobson, Esq. on 5/14/2012

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As the economic recovery continues at an anemic rate, the need for services to the poor remains acute. Already a perennial leader in connecting private attorneys with pro bono opportunities, the Bar Association recently took steps to further fight for the poor, by opposing cuts to social services for needy Pennsylvanians.

This spring, the Board of Governors passed two resolutions generated by members of the Public Interest Section that push back against cuts to services to the poor. Passage of a resolution makes an issue the official position of the Bar Association and empowers the Chancellor and the Bar lobbyist to take public positions in support of the resolution. One resolution, passed by the Board in February, opposed the new asset test for food stamps and the other, passed in March, called for restoration of funding to the Homeowner Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP) and to legal services.

Amongst a flurry of budget cutting in Harrisburg last summer, HEMAP funding was cut to an unsustainable level, and the program had to stop making new loans last July. HEMAP was first established in Pennsylvania thirty years ago to serve as an emergency stopgap by making small loans to those at imminent risk of mortgage default. From 2008 to 2010, HEMAP saved more than 6,100 families from foreclosure. This February the Attorney General’s office received a settlement of over $66 million dollars from a lawsuit over predatory mortgage lending practices. The Bar resolution, drafted by attorneys from Regional Housing Legal Services, urged the Attorney General to use part of these settlement funds to restore HEMAP funding and to use part to restore funding to legal services in Pennsylvania. Legal services organizations have suffered cuts in both state and federal funding over the last several years. City council also passed a resolution calling on the Attorney General to use the mortgage settlement funding to restore HEMAP in March. The Attorney General’s office has not announced whether it will use the settlement monies to re-fund HEMAP or to restore legal services funding, but the issue remains under consideration.

In addition to cuts to mortgage foreclosure loan funding, last December the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) announced plans to institute an asset test for Pennsylvanians receiving support from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps. The administration originally announced it intended to declare families with more than $2000 in assets ineligible for SNAP, setting a $3,250 limit for the elderly or disabled. SNAP is a federally funded program that costs the Commonwealth nothing but the cost to administer it. The asset test requires families to spend down any assets to under the required amount to be eligible for assistance. The test defines assets to include goods like a home or car. After pressure from community service leaders this spring, DPW raised the asset test limits to $5,500 for general households and $9,000 for the elderly or disabled. Drafted by attorneys from Community Legal Services (CLS), the Bar resolution opposed the asset test because it creates more problems than it solves. The test would actually cost Pennsylvania money due to increased administrative costs. It would harm the state’s economy because every $1 spent through the SNAP program generates $1.73 in economic activity, and would address a negligent problem of SNAP fraud. The USDA estimates that the rate of SNAP fraud before the asset test in Pennsylvania was among the lowest in the nation – less than one tenth of one percent. Despite opposition from the Bar Association, Mayor Nutter, federal officials and community interest leaders, DPW began implementation of the SNAP asset test on May 1st.

Two other resolutions have been passed by the Public Interest Section and are circulating for support, one that calls for opposition to anti-Shariah Law legislation and another that urges the country to sign onto the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As long as the needs of the poor remain under served and programs for the poorest among us remain under attack, the public interest community and the Bar Association will continue to be a strong voice in the chorus of the community leaders urging government to do the right thing.

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