I am not a lawyer, and have no interest in being one; yet, I work at a non-profit that provides legal services. People often ask me why.
The answer is complicated, but fundamentally about my interest in poverty and how to reduce it. While my colleagues can answer questions about the legal side of the poverty law equation, I hope to shed some light on what poverty is, and why poverty law is such an important aspect of any poverty reduction strategy. Perhaps by the end of this post, you will have a clearer understanding of why I work where I do.
Historically, poverty has been defined in many ways. Two prevalent examples are income/consumption measures, which generally assess either household income or whether a household can afford a certain basket of goods, and the unsatisfied basic needs approach, which looks at a grouping of basic needs and whether a person has access to all of them or not. Both examples, and most other historical measures, have the same basic assumption: that poverty is a static state. Either you are in poverty, or you are not.
We know now – both as the research in the area has shown and as I have seen from personal experience – that poverty is dynamic: one can move in and out of poverty on a regular basis depending on a number of complex factors.
One approach that captures the nuance of poverty is the vulnerabilities approach. First postulated by Caroline Moser in 1998, this approach recognizes that we are all managers of a complex set of assets that help us withstand various shocks (sudden issues, like a health problem) and trends (more long term, systemic issues). The stronger our assets are, the less vulnerable we are to poverty. Moser categorizes the assets each person has as follows1:
- Labour – our ability to generate an income;
- Human Capital – health and skill/education (which has an impact on the return we receive for our labour);
- Social Capital – the strength of our network, including community connections that will be there for us if we are in trouble and social supports set up by a society;
- Housing/Infrastructure – housing, infrastructure in the community, tools that we may have for a trade, etc.; and
- Household Relations – the dynamics in the household, the ability to pool income, share consumption and have a close-knit network that would be likely to offer support when needed.
How does this relate to poverty law?
Looking from the macro perspective, the legal system itself should function as social capital for all of us. It is a system put in place to protect us from vulnerability. Therefore, equitable access to the justice system is of paramount importance. As lawyers, legal assistants, paralegals, clerks, judges and those involved in the administration of our system, you have a unique perspective and ability to advocate for greater, more equitable access for everyone. By ensuring this accessibility, you reduce our vulnerability and contribute in a substantial way to reducing poverty in our society.
From the micro perspective, each client you work with – whether paid or otherwise – is either protecting or building up their asset bases through your work. A corporate lawyer who gives advice to a business reduces the risk of it shutting down, and increases the likelihood that the business will hire more employees, strengthening the income generating ability of the new hires. A lawyer practicing family law who negotiates a child custody settlement helps to make the household relations function more effectively with respect to the children, and is therefore reducing the vulnerability of all parties – especially the children. A lawyer who provides a public legal education seminar on landlord and tenant law helps someone looking for a new place to rent know their rights and responsibilities, thereby helping to strengthen the extremely important asset of housing. Each area of expertise – no matter how obscure – can offer something in this regard.
Therefore, whether you are a lawyer working in the trenches with people who have a low income, in a high-rise suite working in corporate commercial law, or somewhere in between, you have an important role to play with respect to reducing poverty in our society. By paying attention to access to justice and looking at how your work can build up each of your client’s assets – and the assets of the people your client interacts with – you can make a difference.
1 Moser, Caroline (1998) “Asset Vulnerability Framework: Reassessing Urban Poverty Reduction Strategies”. World Development, Vol. 26 (1): 1 – 19. Accessed online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0305-750X(97)10015-8