This year’s Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Forum, held on March 15, explored the causes of poverty and the impact of the recession on low-income individuals and families. Panelists discussed how advocates use the law to address these problems.
Since the recession began in 2007, unemployment has nearly doubled, and 46 million Americans live in poverty. In fact, more New York City low-income residents are homelessness than ever before. Professor Minna Kotkin discussed the appropriateness of the day’s topic in light of the program’s namesake, Edward Sparer, who was a pioneer lawyer for the welfare rights movement. During the 1960s Sparer led a group of lawyers - in collaboration with welfare recipient activists – to mount a legal campaign to create a constitutional right to welfare.
Frances Fox Piven, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and national expert on poverty and social movements, gave the keynote address. She began her talk by recounting the history of poverty law, explaining how contemporary legal advocacy for the poor is directly connected with the social movements of the 1960s. She also shared her memories of Edward Sparer, whom she knew well. She explained how Sparer began his social justice career handing out flyers on the street to help represent individuals who were wrongfully denied government benefits.
Following Piven’s remarks, five public interest attorneys offered perspectives on their approach to practicing public interest law. They were Richard Blum of the Legal Aid Society/Employment Law Project; Brooke Richie of the Resilience Advocacy Project; Ted Barbieri ’08 (and Sparer Alum) of the Urban Justice Center/Community Development Project; Sarah Ludwig of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project (NEDAP), and Jennifer DaSilva of Start Small, Think Big. Sparer Fellow Noor Alam ’12 organized the event.
One of the themes that emerged during the forum was the evolving characterization of poverty in American society. According to Piven, during what she described as an “attack on welfare,” critics of government programs have characterized recipients of public assistance as “lazy, promiscuous, and generally lacking self-control.” Ludwig pointed out that such characterizations continue within the context of consumer debt. According to the panelists, such stereotypes were tools used to shift focus away from the systemic causes of inequality.
“It was amazing to learn about the innovative work that attorneys are performing in the community to address the collateral effects of poverty,” said Sparer Fellow Sarah DeVita ’14. “It was encouraging to learn that we do not work in a vacuum, but within a context of an entire movement.”
Another theme that was addressed was the need for attorneys performing social justice work to be creative in their approach. The panel illustrated how public interest is not the norm in the legal profession, and that those dedicated to social justice may have to make their way against the current. Nonetheless, through their passion and enthusiasm all the panelists made clear that navigating these rough waters was well worth the effort.