The repercussions of President Donald Trump’s proposal to zero out funding for Legal Services Corp. would be felt deeply by Pennsylvania’s poorest regions, where civil legal aid providers rely most heavily on federal dollars and are already struggling to meet the population’s needs, leaders of those organizations said.
Meanwhile, a drastic reduction in the services offered by federally funded providers would increase the burden on their locally funded counterparts, as well as on local governments and court systems, the leaders added.
LSC provides direct grants to legal aid providers across the country, including eight organizations in Pennsylvania that receive a total of about $11.5 million annually from the organization.
The disappearance of those grants would have a “dramatic” impact in the state, according to Samuel W. Milkes, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network Inc. (PLAN), which is composed of 10 regional programs—including the eight LSC-funded providers—and six specialized legal aid programs.
Milkes said poor Pennsylvanians in rural areas that lack public transportation would be hit the hardest by a reduction in legal aid services because the small, lightly staffed offices in those communities would almost certainly be forced to shut down.
“There would definitely have to be offices closed as a result of this, especially in rural areas where they’re just not going to be able to support maintaining an office,” Milkes said, noting that PLAN’s programs are already able to meet only a fraction of the need for civil legal services in Pennsylvania. “In other words, we are either turning a lot of people away or people have learned it’s just not worth trying to get particular kinds of services.”
LSC’s basic field grants are apportioned to each service area based on the area’s percentage share of the total U.S. poverty population.
Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA), which serves all of Philadelphia, receives the largest share of LSC’s grant money in Pennsylvania.
PLA executive director Anita Santos-Singh said funding from LSC makes up about 70 percent of her organization’s annual budget. For 2017, PLA was awarded about $2.6 million in basic field grant money from LSC, though that amount is contingent on the availability of federal funding.
Like Milkes, Santos-Singh also used the word “dramatic” to describe the potential effect of Trump’s proposed budget cuts on PLA and said the organization would have no choice but to eliminate a number of its services, creating a ripple effect throughout the city.
“You would feel the impact,” she said. “There would definitely be increased pressure on city government to handle some of the issues that will not be resolved, minor problems would [become] major crises, courts would be impacted in that there would be more unrepresented people.”
Santos-Singh said her organization has long had a collaborative relationship with other legal aid providers in the city, including Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which does not receive LSC grant money. But if PLA is forced to scale back its services because of lack of funding, those organizations will also suffer, she said.
“So what you will end up with is a strain on the other organizations because now you will have thousands of people who we would normally serve going to them,” Santos-Singh said. “The demand doesn’t go away; it actually is exacerbated.”
Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, said that while his organization has never received LSC funding, it will see an impact if LSC is defunded.
Cases that might normally have been handled elsewhere—such as landlord/tenant cases, family law cases—won’t be, and that will have an effect on parents and families, many of them quite vulnerable, and will result in more kids winding up in the child welfare system.
“We will undoubtedly see an impact,” he said. “Children will wind up in foster care only because of their poverty, and that’s the last reason why you want to have them there.”
Legal aid groups that received funding from LSC will have to “ramp up fundraising and cut staff,” Cervone said.
When asked if it could result in more pressure on the entire public interest community—including his organization—to compete for the same dollars and attorneys doing pro bono work, he said it was “possible.”
“None of us is doing gang-busters well with fundraising,” Cervone said.
The public interest community in Philadelphia already has to compete with organizations like the United Way, the local universities, and the arts for money and volunteers, he said. Anything else that increases pressure on the legal community, “just makes the air a little thinner,” Cervone said.
Milkes said the Pennsylvania organizations that do receive LSC funding already attempt to supplement that with fundraising, so any notion that they could somehow make up an $11.5 million deficit through donations or some other source is “not realistic.”
“If there really were an additional $11.5 million available we would have been trying to utilize that for the continuing need” that already exists, he said.
Rhodia Thomas, executive director of MidPenn Legal Services, which serves 18 counties in central Pennsylvania and relies on LSC funding for about 32 percent of its total $7.5 million budget, said losing that money would mean having to re-evaluate the type of legal aid it provides and likely reducing its handling of “extended representation cases,” which involve face-to-face meetings rather than just telephone consultations.
And while MidPenn receives some local funding in the urban communities it serves, “no amount of local funding in the midstate is going to make up that $2.5 million.”
Similarly, Victoria Coyle, executive director of North Penn Legal Services, which serves northeastern Pennsylvania and receives 34 percent of its funding—$1.8 million—from LSC, said in an email that the loss of that money “would be a crushing blow to access to justice in general.”
“At this point, I can’t begin to fathom how I would respond to that loss,” she said. “I am sure it would mean office closures, layoffs, and a drastic cut in services.”
Milkes said defunding legal aid could also have economic consequences for other sectors of the economy, pointing to a recent study by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Interest on Lawyers Trust Account Board finding that, in 2011, legal aid services yielded “‘a greater than eleven-fold return on the investment of $53.6 million’” from state funding sources.
For example, Milkes said, when legal aid providers help to keep families from being evicted from their homes, the state and local communities save money on shelters and support services for the homeless. When legal aid providers help to curb domestic violence, taxpayers save money on law enforcement and medical services, he added.
But even if one puts economics aside, Milkes said, defunding legal services seems to run counter to American principles.
“I would say it’s hard to follow what the justification is for this,” Milkes said. “We are a country that believes in fairness and justice and these are not frivolous services—to make sure people have access to justice even if they can’t afford representation.”