The big picture

How poor is poor?

Pro Bono

Meg Benson

Meg Benson has worked for Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, the oldest pro bono organization in the country, for more than 30 years. As executive director, she coordinates the agency’s bench, bar and law firm relations and directs its program management and funding. A family law litigator, she still handles minor guardianship and custody cases.

February 2020

Legal aid attorneys are used to being underpaid. Most took the job understanding they’ll never earn what a first-year associate at a big firm earns, let alone hit senior partnership salary levels. In fact, many make less and have fewer benefits than Chicago public schoolteachers. But they stay in legal aid, at least until college tuition for their children looms, because they believe in the mission.

Regardless, despite the persistently low salaries and inadequate benefits, legal aid attorneys are not poor. Not by a long shot.

Their clients are poor. Very poor.

Last year, the federal government’s poverty income threshold for a single person was $12,490. It was $25,750 for a family of four. People with income at or below this level for the past 12 months were defined as living in poverty. Around 20% of Chicagoans live in poverty.

Chicagoans who live in poverty can’t afford market rent. According to March 2019 data from Apartment List, the median rent for a Chicago studio apartment is $927 per month — nearly the total monthly income of a single person living in poverty. One- or two-bedroom apartments are usually beyond the reach for people with children. Add in the cost of utilities, food, transportation and myriad basic monthly expenses and you can see how low those poverty guidelines really are.

What about government safety nets? For instance — food stamps. Now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, this federal program is available to people who earn up to 130% of the federal poverty level. Illinois residents may be allowed to earn up to 165% if their expenses bring their net income to the poverty line.

Recently, however, the federal government tightened rules to restrict the eligibility of able-bodied adults, under the age of 50 and without dependents, unless they work, are in a job training program or volunteer at least 80 hours a month.

Medicaid is another federal program that, such as SNAP, limits so-called able-bodied adults from qualifying. The federal government (and many taxpayers) believe that able-bodied adults without dependents should not get a free handout. However, some poor people who look able-bodied have serious disabilities that are undiagnosed, unrecognized, untreated or ignored. We see them nearly every day, panhandling, sleeping on the street and living in tent cities under viaducts.

Programs funded by the Legal Services Corp., including Legal Aid Chicago, Prairie State Legal Services and Land of Lincoln Legal Aid in Illinois, have financial eligibility guidelines set at 150% of the federal poverty guideline. These limits are raised for homeowners at risk of foreclosure, veterans, seniors or people with certain health or other issues.

Many programs not funded by LSC have slightly higher eligibility guidelines. For instance, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services’ general guidelines are at 175% of the federal level although, like LSC-funded programs, they can be adjusted for certain clients or cases. For most cases, a single person can earn up to $21,858 in a year to be eligible for CVLS’ services. A parent with three children is limited to an annual income of $45,063.

That’s poor.

The bottom line is this: Pro bono attorneys have no reason to worry that they will be donating their services to people who aren’t legitimately low-income. Legal aid clients live in or on the edge of poverty. They need your help.

And all attorneys, legal aid included, should treasure our ability to afford the basics of life such as a decent home and a warm winter coat and boots, along with some extras now and then.