Spotlight Exclusives

January 27, 2009: What Lawyers Need to Do to Tackle Child Poverty, By Jeff Bleich, Immediate Past-President, State Bar of California

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Ten years ago, I was asked to lead a national effort to address youth violence, which ultimately meant I became an advocate to end child poverty. The conditions that breed youth violence are the same ones that produce high rates of youth drug addiction, depression, promiscuity, suicide, teen pregnancy, homelessness, and abuse, and every one of them is magnified by poverty. And yet, while we have thousands of laws to deal with those poverty issues, we have relatively few lawyers addressing them. Federal and state programs may never have all the resources and breadth needed to help get the 12.8 million children living in poverty in the United States out of poverty. In California, we are forging partnerships between the private sector and government to try to fill this gap and bring hope and opportunity to our poorest youth.

The greatest limitation on government’s ability to solve these problems is that it can give money but not love or self-respect. The best our government can ever do is give the nation۪s children enough to eat and good schools to attend. But it is our nation۪s doctors, lawyers, and professionals of all sorts who can bring human warmth and hope to these children. They have the ability to take a healthy mind and body and inspire it with vision and hope. While these calls to service are often made and applauded, they are also too often ignored. But I have become more optimistic about the ability of the private sector to mobilize to help youth. That is because during my term last year as the President of the California State Bar, I witnessed firsthand hundreds of professionals who had never even been involved in youth service before deliver on that promise and love doing it.

Part of the challenge of motivating professionals is — forgive the upcoming rhyme — to educate them, demonstrate the programs that work, and help them generate the same understanding and commitment in the next generation.

First, we have to help them understand that the problem is contained, and that they can make a difference. Many professionals are overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the number of children in poverty and the problem that poverty creates. They hear that we have one of the worst poverty rates for children in the developed world, and they think the problem is too great for them. But being among the worst doesn’t mean that we are overrun with children in poverty. Indeed, many children in the United States are actually doing well. 84 percent of our children come from families above the poverty line and two-thirds enjoy stable and adequate housing. In addition, the amount of resources that are needed to nudge a young person beyond the tipping point of lifelong poverty are relatively small. Many programs have been proved to work over time, across different demographics, and regardless of the personnel. Poverty is not inevitable and the 16 percent who are born into it do not have to live that way for their entire lives.

Second, we need to demonstrate; show professionals programs that actually work by giving them real-life experience coupled with data. Too often, our response to the children who need our help the most is to institutionalize them or ignore them until they force our attention because we have lost confidence that anything works. But, in fact, there are several proven routes to opportunity and prosperity. The second key is to connect lawyers and other professionals to those programs. For lawyers, there are at least four ways to help break the cycle of poverty.

  • Legal advocacy
  • Mentoring
  • Economic opportunity
  • Financial support

The Bar Association of San Francisco has had tremendous success by developing a whole portfolio of programs that do precisely these things. For example, one provides legal assistance and money to secure housing for children of evicted families; another helps move parents off welfare by finding them work within law firms; a third program matches working mothers with lawyers who need daycare so that they can supplement their income while caring for their own children; and, finally, a fourth program helps teach parents who do not have custody rights how to attain those rights by becoming responsible parents. Younger lawyers are a particularly rich source of support for these programs in terms of time and energy. Last year, the California Young Lawyers Association launched a pilot program to train lawyers how to help adolescents moving out of foster care to deal with the challenges of being a young adult the way a caring parent would. Other bar associations in California work to connect lawyers with students who have learning disabilities, to ensure that their needs are met within the school system.

The more contact between a lawyer and a mentee, the better it proves for both of them. Indeed, the greatest success the Bar has achieved with these efforts has been when attorneys discover the rewards of mentoring a child or young adult one-on-one. The Los Angeles County Bar recently opened a law academy that targets students having a difficult time at school. The academy helps students focus on legal issues to add excitement to their studies. Lawyers participate as well and give students the special attention they need. To strengthen the young person’s sense of possibility and hope, these students apply for work and get an actual job in a law firm.

These initiatives represent just some of the ways that attorneys across the country can help target child poverty and take a direct stake in opening up meaningful opportunities for our nation۪s youth. As the new administration moves into the White House, I have confidence that the new President understands the unique and critical role that needs to be played by public-private partnerships. And that is the third point. The best way to eradicate poverty among children is to convince all members of society — not just youth service professionals to own this issue. If they understand they can make a difference and can actually witness a change in a young person’s life, they can catalyze vast untapped resources of mentoring, funding, advocacy, and optimism. I believe the federal government can help establish programs that help not only attorneys, but also other professionals and high-skill workers advocate for and interact with children and young people around the country.

A serious commitment to reduce child poverty requires more than money. I have seen firsthand how attorneys have fought for the rights of foster children or helped to mentor a lost and suffering child into a successful student and college graduate. Sometimes they even produce an aspiring lawyer. This requires something different from the usual call to action — it requires faith. Faith in children a professional hasn’t met, in programs he or she hasn’t tried, but most of all faith in ourselves.

Jeff Bleich is a Partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and is the immediate Past-President of the State Bar of California.

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