The longer the COVID-19 outbreak lasts, the brighter the spotlight it shines on long-standing inequalities in our society and the fragility of our social safety nets.
As the days wear on, those who are most vulnerable in our community are experiencing the economic brunt of the crisis. Once businesses began shuttering to keep people safe, many low-wage workers began missing their paychecks. Living in poverty in the United States means having no savings to weather the storm; even stocking up on food, something many of us take for granted, can represent an impossible financial hurdle.
At Community Legal Center and Memphis Area Legal Services, we often cite the statistic that 40% of Americans can’t afford a $400 emergency, as a way of explaining the need for legal aid funding.
Now we are seeing this play out before our eyes. The pandemic exposes the struggle of people who live in a constant state of crisis, the people who are working hard to stave off poverty, the people we represent every day. For many, circumstances are dire and with financial ruin will come a wide range of legal problems.
We are receiving panicked calls from people who have been furloughed or fired and who lack money to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads. If you drive past any food distribution facility, there are lines of women with children waiting and hoping to get food before supplies are exhausted.
Those who have received their stimulus checks find the check is generally not enough to pay rent, utilities and food for one month, so they have the agonizing questions of what not to pay and what happens when they do not pay.
Some are asking whether they should forgo rent and utility payments to save the stimulus money to feed their children for a longer period of time. While lawful evictions have been temporarily halted, a few landlords are unlawfully putting people on the street. Tenants unable to pay their rent express fear about what will happen when the moratorium on lawful evictions is lifted. Calls about domestic violence are increasing. We are receiving calls about COVID-19 scams targeting the elderly. Our clients fear for their own futures and the futures of their children.
At the same time we are witnessing the struggles of so many resulting from the pandemic, we are also watching ways the justice system is adapting. Like much of the world, the justice system finds itself in uncharted territory. Courts, jails, law firms and legal nonprofits are all altering the way they conduct business. It is all but certain that COVID-19 will leave its imprint on our legal system for many years to come.
Courts at all levels are struggling to address the needs of litigants during the pandemic. Most have narrowed their operations down to “essential functions,” holding mostly emergency hearings. We applaud ongoing efforts by the judiciary at all levels in Tennessee to address these issues, including online filing of pleadings and use of telephonic and virtual hearings.
It is imperative that substantial and sustained support for legal aid services be part of our government’s short- and long-term planning to help fund the front line response in the present emergency and later during the recovery. And the role of philanthropy in supporting legal assistance for those in need is more critical now than it has ever been.
Race remains a factor, even in a pandemic
In order for the most vulnerable to recover in some measure from the devastation they are experiencing, they need access to legal care – at a time they are less able to afford it than ever. We call on private foundations and individual donors to consider this need a front line service and to step up to help us help them.
Economically vulnerable populations are growing exponentially during this crisis, and their legal problems are likely to multiply as a result of the fallout from it as well. The investment we make now to meet this need must be equal to the scale of the problem to ensure justice is a value we still uphold on the other side.