The Fight for Representation: Small Voices Need Big Funding

By: Christina Scott, HeLP Fall 2017 Student Intern

Life in the clinic can seem very insulated. Students have partners, dedicated supervisors, and a team of professors and other professionals at the ready to ensure success. Though HeLP Clinic students are required to spend time at the children’s hospital and sit in meetings with HeLP senior staff, they are mostly protected from needing to look under the hood of a lightly funded, interdisciplinary non-profit. There are many forces outside the clinic, however, that could affect its longevity. Politics, both local and national, have noticeably shifted in the last year, and it is safe to wonder how things would be different if the 2016 election had turned out differently.

Many, and probably all, of the clinic’s clients cannot withstand the full force of their medical bills. If they were required to pay them in full out of pocket, our clients simply would not be able to get the medical help they need. Further, many of our clients have conditions that might negatively affect their ability to get a healthcare plan on the open market, if they were even given the opportunity to do so. They simply and totally rely on government-funded health care.

Further, the demographics of our clients put them at a distinct disadvantage in the current political climate in other ways. An African-American client whose children have a Latino last name will certainly face two-fold discrimination. Their full citizenship doesn’t guarantee them freedom from the discrimination that comes from that fully charged mixture of circumstances beyond their control.  Clinic clients are poor—poorer than almost any student who has the ability to attend law school (or who even had the reason to dream they could). Poor people are under fire in this administration. Those most targeted by the bigoted remarks and actions of the administration are also almost always the poorest and the least likely to help themselves. They also have the smallest voices even when their own futures are on the chopping blocks.

Educationally, we know that poor kids suffer and that poor black and brown kids suffer the most. Statistically, poor kids go to poor schools and get subpar educations. Kids in these schools are sicker, and chronically so, and they have less secure futures. They are sometimes not legitimized, and frequently their parents are as sick as they are.  These kids need strong schools filled with well-paid, prepared, and motivated teachers and administrators, yet they frequently get the greenest teachers with the least experience. The current administration is harming children in this way too. With a new Secretary of Education who champions private, Christian schools over strong public schools, these children will not be well represented. The Secretary wants to turn control over to the states: an idea that works well for Maryland and Connecticut and Massachusetts, but not so well for Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi (southern states, where, by no coincidence, the poorest, blackest kids live). States with a very high population of Latinos and Native Americans, like South Dakota and New Mexico, do even worse. How can we help our kids when the government seems to continually fail them?

Finally, I fear our clinic and others hosted in public schools will face harsher budgets if the administration turns on legal aid in the same way more conservative politicians have decried welfare generally. We have a beautiful clinic with wonderful supervisors and full time practicing attorneys. Though money is tight, we have printers, computers, telephones, and paid assistants. The University does not foot the whole bill, but a time might come when funding for programs like ours comes under fire. In fact, in universities across the country, this discussion has already started. The UNC Civil Rights Center, in Chapel Hill North Carolina, lost its funding from the university in September of this year when the college’s Board of Governors disagreed with the center’s mission, and the North Dakota Law School clinic, serving immigrants, shut down this February due to lack of funding despite a hike in tuition. Worse, the president has aggressively threatened to cut 90% of funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation. One of the Health Law Partnership’s partners is the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and the clinic would certainly suffer under both University cutbacks and threats to federal legal aid. In such a scenario, the clinic would not be able to serve in even the limited capacity that it does now.

There is not much to be done now except worry, hope and have a long view of the future. I am hopeful every time I see the clinic buzzing with students and the halls of the law school filled with bright minds and eager hearts