What Did I Learn?

My last day as an Equal Justice Works Fellow was September 27, 2017. Since then, I’ve been writing this post in fits and starts to try and sum up the experience. Part of the difficulty is that strong opinions and emotions tend to make maudlin and trite things bubble up in the writing, and right now every thought I put down on the page feels imbued with passion and urgency and even anger. I think the best way to mitigate these risks is to begin with old news and ease into the new things. For those of you who may be reading about my work for the first time:

THE WORK

For the past two years, I’ve been running a legal clinic for homeless youth through Public Counsel, the legal aid law firm which hosted my fellowship, and Safe Place for Youth (SPY), a nonprofit drop-in center for homeless youth in Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood. The central policy idea behind drop-in centers is that services for the homeless shouldn’t be gated behind intense programs that may not be right for everyone, but rather should be as low-barrier as possible, meeting people where they are. To this end, the legal clinic at SPY was one of a suite of services which was offered every week during drop-in hours, including dental, medical, mental health, and counseling.

Keeping with the spirit of a drop-in center, my clinic was open to any and all questions about the law. The breadth of this policy occasionally led to surreal moments, such as the time when a young person walked into the clinic, sat down, cracked his knuckles, and said, “So what can you tell me about the Constitution?”. Thankfully, I’d recently taken the bar exam and the material was still fresh. After about twenty minutes of interrogation about the granular details of our nation’s founding document, the young man stood up, nodded sagely, as if satisfied that I was actually an attorney and not a scam artist, and walked out. I never talked to that guy again. Usually, I was fielding questions about more urgent legal issues, from expungement and emancipation to family law, immigration, and even, unfortunately, human trafficking. I dispensed advice when I could, and gave referrals when I couldn’t.

The bulk of my work, however, was representing young people in Los Angeles Superior Court on the many tickets they received from the police for offenses like “blocking a public sidewalk” or “sleeping in park after hours”, crimes of status that punish homeless people simply for being homeless. While many of these tickets were infractions and didn’t threaten jail time or a criminal record, the fines and fees attached to those citations often ran into the hundreds of dollars, piling up into the thousands when they went unpaid (when you can’t afford to feed yourself, you’re probably not going to have the funds to pay the court).

Missed court appearances and unpaid debt generate warrants and suspended driver’s licenses, which then lead to arrests, re-citation, and more debt, on and on in an escalating cycle. Thus, even when a young person exits homelessness and gets back on their feet, they might not be able to drive, get a loan, or enroll in school due to outstanding debt and the associated warrants. My job was to get these cases dismissed, or otherwise negotiate some plea or settlement by which the legal and financial burden on my client was proportionately reduced based on their income and personal history.

In the end, over the two years of my fellowship I took over 150 infraction and misdemeanor ticket cases and got over $70,000 dollars in court-ordered debt dismissed. I wrangled with the California Department of Social Services to get my clients’ SNAP and GR benefits in order. I developed a rewarding, productive relationship with the city attorney’s office to reform its Homeless Court program. I gave interviews to the Los Angeles Daily Journal and the LA Times. And after a frenzied, stressful back-and-forth among me, my supervisor, and higher-ups at Public Counsel, I was able to preserve my clinic so another attorney would continue to provide services after I left.

I also sat quietly and listened outside a courtroom as one of my most difficult clients opened up about his childhood. Another young person spoke at an event in front of politicians, philanthropists, and service providers and told them that when she gets back on her feet, she wants to be a lawyer like “Andrew at SPY”. A young man headed back to his family across the Pacific took my hands in his, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re a blessing, mate.” Another youth, yelling across the courtyard: “Yo, Andrew! The best lawyer, man!” One of my favorite young people, after I helped her get her last ticket dismissed, gave me a giant bear hug and told me. “You’re the shit, Chen.” The sound of disbelief, and then delight, over the phone when a young woman heard that her tickets and warrants were gone. These are the best memories.

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT POLICY

I don’t think the fellowship fundamentally changed my political or policy preferences – rather, I think it strengthened the bedrock principles they come from. At the core of it, I believe that anti-poverty policy should above all else seek to preserve human dignity and strengthen community from a place of compassion and solidarity. That’s rule number one, and any specific policy preferences should stem from it.


First, let’s talk about what is wrong with the status quo.

One of the most shocking issues I encountered when I first started doing work on homelessness in Los Angeles was how difficult it was for people to maintain their public benefits. Public Counsel, the firm which sponsored my fellowship, has a program called Connecting Angelenos to Resources and Essential Services (CARES), which allows attorneys and advocates to enter Los Angeles Department of Social Services (DPSS) welfare offices and help participants resolve problems with their cases.

We were only able to have this kind of direct access to bureaucratic management by way of a decades-old court order, when the City of Los Angeles and legal aid groups sued the county for improperly cutting benefits and closing cases, leaving vulnerable people without critical assistance. Since then, advocates have spent years working to improve the delivery of services at DPSS, to significant success.

However, one persistent remaining issue I noticed in DPSS offices was the bureaucracy’s problematic attitude towards their clients. Many beneficiaries still report (and I witnessed) eligibility workers, case managers, and even upper management folks who are callous, superior, and judgmental. People who come to DPSS for help often feel like help is given begrudgingly, and with suspicion. They notice that case managers do not seem genuinely interested in their plight, and, through ignorance or malice, sometimes misapply policy to punish the participant for even small or accidental instances of noncompliance.

Part of this attitude is likely due to the natural entropy of any bureaucracy, public or private, and the fatigue that consumer/beneficiary-facing employees feel, particularly in the fraught emotional contexts that often arise from poverty. Some of this is human nature and, to some degree, unavoidable.

I believe though that the vast majority of the callousness, the suspicion, and the condescension that poor people experience in our public benefits system extends from the toxic assumptions about the poor that are built into the concrete policy structures of the American safety net.

At the root of it is a deep suspicion of poverty – such a thing is, after all, antithetical to the American Dream, which aspires to create a nation where anyone who works hard can earn a decent living and a promising future for their children. Some people, including myself, believe that dream has yet to be achieved – others, on both the left and right, are more settled in their conviction that the Great American Meritocracy is functioning largely as intended.

For those who hold the latter belief, poverty is not unjust, but rather merely unfortunate – because the explanation cannot be systemic, it must be the natural result of bad decision-making or poor character. If the American Dream is working, and achievable, then no person of industrious character could possibly be poor.

This logic is built into the DNA of our anti-poverty policies, and most obviously apparent in the rhetoric surrounding the welfare reform movement of the 1990s, (good reading on this topic from Vann Newkirk II in The Atlantic here). Generally, the reforms added steeper requirements for benefit eligibility, and gave states much more discretion as to how the funds were spent:

[The creation of] TANF expanded Reagan-era welfare reforms that created a loose requirement for certain beneficiaries to engage in a training, education, and work program. TANF transformed that initiative into a much more aggressive work requirement, which narrowed the number of exempt adults, reduced the range of accepted activities to qualify for benefits, largely excluded education and classroom training as qualifiers, and set firm hours-worked standards. In keeping with its foundational ethic of “personal responsibility,” TANF also created maximum time limits for receipt of aid, tightened eligibility, and allowed states to more harshly sanction beneficiaries for noncompliance.

The biggest change from AFDC to TANF was the funding structure. Clinton’s welfare reform eliminated AFDC’s open-ended funding structure and replaced it with a block grant to states that would not increase over the years to adjust for inflation. States were required to spend a certain amount of their own money to match federal dollars, but could also spread some of that money around to other, loosely-defined public-assistance programs that didn’t necessarily provide cash benefits. States were also bound by TANF’s work requirements, and could lose federal dollars if the number of working enrollees fell below a specific threshold.

At first blush, it may seem intuitive or obvious that a government benefit would require consideration or “buy in” through work requirements and other “tough love” measures. And, in principle, I don’t completely object to the idea of benefit recipients paying some form of consideration to receive them.

But at the heart of these policy choices is the belief that people are poor is because they lack initiative or industry. Such generalizations about the character of poor people create stereotypical multiforms – the welfare queen, the homeless junkie, the mooching immigrant.

These stereotypes are wrong for four primary reasons.

First, it is simply a moral wrong. To broad-brush the poor as a group of simpletons or layabouts is just another form of prejudice – it hardens our hearts and closes our eyes to the love of God which reveals the inherent and inalienable dignity of every human being. It prevents us from loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Second, it bears little resemblance to the reality of American poverty. While anecdotal evidence is hardly scientific, my overwhelming impression working in poor communities in Los Angeles has been that people derive value and fulfillment from work, and are hungry to find it. I know so many people who are homeless or on the brink of it who are working multiple jobs and side-hustles just to survive and their families fed and safe.

Thankfully, my observations are also borne out in the research on the industriousness of the poor. 80 percent of all households, including 90 percent of families with children, who receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) work in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP. 60 percent of adults who receive health insurance through Medicaid work full or part time, and much of the remainder are disabled, retired, in school, or stay-at-home parents and caregivers. Broadly, longitudinal studies of much more permissive cash transfer programs in other countries have found that welfare didn’t disincentivize people from working, and a study of U.S. and Canadian basic income experiments (the least regulated form of welfare) found that even when participants worked less, they put the extra time towards education or pursuing a better job, not lazing about. While there are exceptions to every generalization and conservative thinkers like J.D. Vance have testified honestly and without malice to their own experience living in what they perceive to be cultures of dependency, the scientific data implies strongly that the primary problem with American poverty is not a deficit of character among the poor.

The third problem with such stereotyped thinking is that it creates a permissive political atmosphere to neglect even the problematic status quo. It doesn’t take much psychological insight to infer that people are likely to be less charitable towards people they deem undeserving. Public benefits in this country, despite all of their eligibility requirements, are meager. Even in California, cash aid (General Relief, or GR) and nutritional assistance through CalFresh (California’s SNAP program) in Los Angeles County together amount to only $415 ($221+194) a month for a single adult, or a little less than $5,000 per year. In a housing market where the average rent is $1,440 and rent-stabilized properties are few and far between, these benefits may be enough to keep you from starving, but they aren’t even close to providing someone a foundation for a better life.

Fourth and finally, when we broad-brush poor people as lazy “takers”, we create a toxin which degrades bonds of trust and empathy between citizens and their public institutions, and stunts the potential of public programs to lift communities out of poverty. Whenever someone is made to feel that a public institution or a fellow American prejudges and disrespects them, the bond between that person and their community is broken in fundamental ways.

Consider the youth of color who is stopped and frisked against an alley wall while his white friend looks on unmolested, or the retired coal miner who reads a headline in the newspaper announcing tax cuts for the wealthy and benefit cuts to Medicaid. Institutions and politicians created and elected to represent their interests don’t appear interested in doing so. People perceive in an instant whether figures of authority are genuinely treating them with respect and dignity. When they realize that element is missing, they understandably (and I would say rightfully) disconnect – and that trust is incredibly difficult to rebuild.

There are concrete consequences to this withdrawal – people who have been let down in this way not only withdraw from benefits programs that could help them – they are less likely to vote, run for office, or otherwise raise their voice in public, which in turn only further increases their political isolation. The tickets I defended in court are an extension of this same toxic mentality – fining homeless people for being homeless presumes that the primary cause of their homelessness is a failure of character, on some level. Showing up in court to tell my clients’ stories and defend their interests is part of a broader movement to confront society’s cold shoulder towards the poor.


So what can we do to fix all this, and what does a different system look like? Again, I think any good social program has to be guided by a sense of solidarity and true compassion, not judgment or condescending charity.

I think the best way to create social programs which have these qualities is to make sure that they reflect the communities in which they are implemented. The problem is that, as currently implemented, many government social service agencies are disconnected from the communities they are intended to reflect and serve.

A huge part of the problem is that the government aid (through cash, nutritional assistance, health insurance, etc.) and social work designed to support the community (such as job training) are inextricably linked (and funded) through a common government bureaucracy. This limits the ability of local non-profits and community organizations to take the lead in implementing policy solutions, and creates perverse incentives for government to effect financial or budgetary outcomes by hamstringing the quality of the social work. For example, in order to demonstrate “fewer people on welfare”, municipalities may instruct their eligibility workers and other employees to act with harsher discretion against prospective applicants.

Such incentives create an environment that seeks to manufacture aggregate “outcomes” and “deliverables” instead of focusing on achieving justice and dignity for individuals.

Therefore, to fix this issue, if I had a magic policy wand I would fully sever income assistance from social work by implementing a universal basic income and segregating the bureaucracy that administers it from social work agencies such as the Department of Mental Health or Economic Development. I’m not going to get into too many policy details because, frankly, I’m not well-versed enough to fully flesh out a program of that magnitude, but I think on a basic level a universal basic income accomplishes a few things:

First, it removes condescension and judgment from the administration of public benefits. On the contrary, it demonstrates trust that the government believes its citizens will use the aid wisely (as the research appears to bear out – see above). This is bad for many reasons, including the four big ones I outlined above.

Second, by easing the yoke of government judgment from the administration of these benefits, it shifts some of the power in determining the fate of poor communities back to those communities themselves. While a guaranteed minimum income is not true self-sufficiency, it will give poor communities some much-needed autonomy to invest in their future.

Critically, this newfound agency will not be effective without organization and leadership. Before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was on the cusp of leading the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, a movement advocating for human rights and economic justice for poor Americans of all backgrounds. Critical to the Campaign was the idea that unlike the traditional model, where important men in industry and government decided what was best for the poor, that the poor themselves deserved a strong voice in decisions that affect their communities. This spirit continues in the revived Poor Peoples’ Campaign led by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. We need movements and leaders like this to guide grassroots organizing power.

Furthering the goal of creating safety nets which are rooted in solidarity and not judgment, I would also try to elevate and empower grassroots, community organizations and nonprofits to provide the services and supports they need, with cooperative, as-light-as-necessary oversight from government agencies. Local organizations and government agencies have different strengths – while the (in particular, federal) government has the fiscal capital and the policy expertise to establish a solid floor of best practices and sound, evidence-based strategies, local organizations have social capital in the communities they work in, as well as specific knowledge about their neighborhoods to guide the quirks and details of policy implementation.

To some extent, we already strategize this way – my current job helping implement legal services for homeless persons in West Los Angeles, is a good example of a relatively healthy, functioning public-private partnership. However, I think we can still do more to give local organizations the resources and expertise they need to scale up, serve their community effectively and strengthen the bonds between citizens and their government. Having a safety net means creating genuine community support, not just throwing money at the problem – we need to build a family for people whose families have failed them.

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT PEOPLE

As many of you know, I have very deep-seated beliefs about public service and social justice which come from two primary sources: (1) having wonderful parents who taught me that I had a responsibility to do good work for the world with whatever gifts I may have and (2) going to a Jesuit High School which successfully indoctrinated me with the belief that the purpose of life is to be a Man for Others.

Admittedly, when I first started the fellowship I was worried that my experiences might jade my fervor – that I might decide to place limits on my empathy and conclude that some people just aren’t worth helping, or worse, that their suffering was justified. I was worried that the stereotypes you hear about homeless people – that they’re all crazy, that they don’t actually want to get off the street – would seem true.

I can say with confidence that I believe more deeply now than I ever have before in the worth and dignity of every person, no matter how they may appear. I have had the opportunity to meet so many extraordinary people who humble me with their resilience. I have seen people heal – not overnight, but still almost miraculously, from immense suffering I can scarcely comprehend.

And I have been able to see, up close, the effects of childhood trauma on young lives, the crippling effects of mental illness and substance abuse, and how without support and love, people can spiral into danger. It has reinforced, for me, the encompassing wisdom of Matthew 7:1-3 –

[1] Judge not, that ye be not judged. [2] For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. [3] And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

When I meet a youth who is filled with rage at the world and shame at their own failures I am reminded of my teenage self, who had real problems with his temper and often struggled (still struggles) with feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I remember getting so angry at a classmate’s taunting that I turned my desk over and hurled my book at the wall. Mr. Carrigan didn’t send me to detention or report me to Dean Warren’s office, but just sent me outside to cool off, and then took me aside after class to make sure everything was okay.

I’ll always be grateful for that kindness, and for the privilege of being a promising student in a private school that gave me the benefit of the doubt. Many of our young people, especially youth of color, don’t get it – and it crushes me to think that lashing out in anger didn’t harm me at all, but sends my clients to alternative schools and juvenile prisons. If I had just been born in a different place, my teenage problems could have led to a lifetime of legal jeopardy.

So I learned to judge not – and consider the beam in my own eye. To remember that I able to change, and to believe that other people can as well. To, as Fr. Greg Boyle says, “stand in awe at what the poor carry, rather than in judgment at how they carry it.”

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT MYSELF

While after college I had strong convictions about how I wanted to structure my life, as the fellowship loomed it became clear to me that I had yet to see much concrete evidence of a number of things relevant to these plans, including but not limited to:

  1. Whether my ideals were sufficiently tempered by practical considerations
  2. Whether I was going to be any good at public interest work/lawyering
  3. Whether I was going to like the work even if I was good at it
  4. If I was good at it, and if I liked it, if anyone would notice, such that I could take on more responsibility.

In the background of all these questions, like a cold miasma tangled between my brain and my skull, was (is) the persistent self-doubt that helps me think carefully and thoroughly and keeps me from, as my godfather warned, “believing my own hype”, but also sometimes makes me feel like a fraud who’s been cushioned by privilege and, inured as such from loss and sacrifice in multitudes, gets to play-act at being the good guy.

While that lingering fog will probably never go away, the fellowship cemented my confidence that I was succeeding on all four counts. I think I have a talent for connecting with very different kinds of people, which has helped me be a good confidant for my clients, and an effective advocate in court. I know that I have been able to win some great outcomes both in litigation and public policy. I have discovered that I do enjoy lawyering (so far), and that other people have noticed what I’m doing and have trusted me to do more. And throughout, I feel like I’ve been sufficiently flexible to achieve just outcomes without sacrificing my beliefs or principles.

I also learned that I need to continue learning – about a year into the fellowship, while I was still getting good outcomes for my clients I felt as if I’d hit a sort of learning ceiling on the job – after all, low-level citations don’t exactly encompass deep and fascinating areas of law, and at any rate I was mostly making equitable, not legal arguments to police officers, not attorneys, in court. It was morally fulfilling, but I found myself feeling restless intellectually.

I’m only two and a half years into my career, and as it continues the mileage will almost certainly vary. But it has been an immense joy and relief to know that I have been able to accomplish good things in the world so far, and I’m hungry to do more.

THE ROAD AHEAD

When I first started writing this post back last fall, I had no idea what I was going to be doing next. The law firm where I had done my fellowship did not have the funds to retain me – indeed, I had to pull a last-minute effort involving an exhaustive memo to the firm’s vice-president just to get them to keep services at my clinic running after my departure. Public interest law jobs are scarce, and jobs in the areas I wanted to work in (labor, civil rights, housing) were scarcer still. I ended up spending around 5 months unemployed, trying to make it a time of rigorous self-improvement (and succeeding, kinda).

But now, I’m at the end of my fourth week of employment at Bet Tzedek, another legal aid firm in Los Angeles, that is also doing homelessness work. Specifically, I’m funded by a big grant the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has given to all the legal aid organizations in LA under Measures H and HHH a ballot measure to fund efforts to end homelessness in this city.

To my great joy, I now have an expanded slate of responsibilities, including eviction defense, employment law, and policy advocacy. I’m learning about new areas of law and, along with my yet-to-be-hired teammates, will be responsible for all of the homelessness-related legal services provided to people in Service Planning Area (SPA) 5, a county regional designation that encompasses almost all of West Los Angeles.

I am also delighted that, since Bet Tzedek is now the lead agency for SPA 5, I actually get to take back my clinic at Safe Place for Youth. I have a few ideas as to ways we can expand the scope of services and create a network of fierce, knowledgeable, community advocates, and I feel blessed to be given a head start by being placed with organizational partners I love and work well with.

To sum up, I don’t know how long I’ll end up doing this work or where I’ll end up in five, ten, or fifteen years, but I’m going to do my best to make the most of this opportunity. Apparently by writing an extremely long blog post about it. Homelessness and poverty may never be eliminated completely, but I think we can do a whole lot more than we’re doing now to create a new civil contract among American citizens and their government that is rooted in solidarity and creates a reliable foundation for all our American Dreams. I am honored to be a part of the effort.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for your patience, and thanks for reading.

 

 

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