In recent days, we reached out to the Legal Aid community regarding the disturbing budget cuts proposed by Mayor Fenty in his Gap Closing Plan for FY2011. Among other things, the plan proposed to cut the Access to Justice Grant Program – which supports civil legal services for indigent District residents and the Community Legal Interpreter Bank – by more than 50% of the level appropriated by the Council this spring. It also proposed reducing funding for the Loan Repayment Assistance Program, which helps legal services lawyers to manage otherwise crushing educational debt. I testified before the Council regarding this issue. In an extraordinary show of support, Chief Judge Eric Washington of the D.C. Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Lee Satterfield of the Superior Court, D.C. Bar President Ron Flagg, and the head of the Access to Justice Commission, Peter Edelman, all came down personally to the Council to oppose the cut. Many Legal Aid Board members and friends of Legal Aid reached out to the Council via email or telephone.
These extraordinary efforts paid off: in a day otherwise marred by deep cuts to social services in the District, the Council voted to restore most of the cuts the Mayor had proposed to Access to Justice funding. Specifically, it appears that Access to Justice grant’s level was restored to $2.951 million and LRAP was fully restored to $221,000. This represents a 10% cut to the Access to Justice grants program, as opposed to the over 50% cut that was proposed.
Legal Aid has also been heavily involved in advocacy regarding the spending cuts proposed that affect our client community directly, including a misguided cut to the TANF payments. Our Liman Public Policy Fellow Monica Bell testified before the Council. Here, our advocacy efforts were very challenging (and vastly less successful). On Tuesday, December 7, the D.C. Council significantly altered the District’s welfare policy by essentially adopting a time limit for TANF receipt. By February 2011, the District will reduce benefits to families who have received TANF for more than 5 years by 20%. The benefit reduction will increase by 20% each following fiscal year until they are no longer receiving any cash assistance. That means that a family of three now receiving $428 per month in cash assistance will receive $342 per month in FY2012, $257 per month in FY2013, $171 per month in FY 2014, and just $86 per month in FY2015. The FY2011 change will affect over 7,000 District families. Unlike other jurisdictions with welfare time limits, the District does not exempt especially vulnerable populations, such as survivors of domestic violence, those caring for disabled family members, or recipients over the age of 60. Half of the predicted savings will be reinvested in D.C.’s job training programs. We are very concerned about the real, practical effects of these cuts and will be working on responses in the coming days, weeks, and months.