Archive for News and Developments
Federal Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP)
The following is an overview of the loan repayment assistance program calendar year report submitted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) annually to Congress. The information provided can help job candidates and current federal employees research which agencies use the program and for what occupations. If you are considering a career in the federal government, an attractive benefit of federal employment is student loan repayment assistance. Do your research and always ask if this benefit is available to you.
Federal agencies are authorized to provide up to $10,000 in loan repayment assistance per calendar year for certain federally-made, insured or guaranteed student loans with a total lifetime cap of $60,000 per employee. In exchange for each year that an employee accepts this benefit, she or he must commit to working for the federal government for an additional three years. If an employee accepts this benefit and leaves (separates either voluntarily or involuntarily) before this period expires, she or he must repay the full amount.
In Calendar Year 2015, 32 federal agencies provided 9,610 employees with a total of more than $69.5 million in student loan repayment benefits. Compared to CY 2014, this represents an 18.4 percent increase in agencies’ overall financial investment in this benefit, and more than a 13 percent increase in the number of employees receiving the benefit. The average student loan repayment benefit in CY 2015 was $7,238, which is a 4.3 percent increase over CY 2014.
The five agencies that provided the most loan repayment assistance in CY 2015 were:
|Agency||Number of Employees Receiving Benefits||Change in Number of Employees Receiving Benefits||Total Amount of Assistance||Change in Total Assistance from CY 2014|
|Department of Defense||2,525||42.3%||$19,133,117||57.6%|
|Department of Justice||1,733||0.3%||$14,575,135||13.0%|
|Department of State||1,431||1.1%||$11,285,688||1.3%|
|Securities and Exchange Commission||727||1.9%||$6,381,160||3.4%|
|27 other agencies||2,296||$12,519,596|
In CY 2015, the Department of Justice and the Department of State used its student loan repayment benefits increasingly in the areas of intelligence and diplomacy, particularly in JD advantage positions Special Agent (587) and Intelligence Analysts (183) at DOJ and Foreign Affairs (224), Foreign Service serving in Political Affairs (133) and Public Diplomacy (110) at DOS. The Securities and Exchange Commission used the majority of its loan repayment funds on mission critical occupations, with Attorney-Advisor being the largest category of recipients (372 attorneys received benefits in CY 15) and the JD advantage position Securities Compliance Examiner (41). The Department of Veterans Affairs also used a large portion of funding on the JD advantage positions of Contract Specialists (95) and Human Resource Specialists (151).
Departments and agencies were invited to provide details on their experiences in administrating their programs. From the comments, it appears more agencies than in previous years are using the student loan payments as a retention rather than a recruitment tool. There were some exceptions. For example, the Department of the Treasury reported the program is used mostly for hard-to-fill intelligence, legal and policy-related positions. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has made substantial investments in the program since 2001, using it to recruit and retain attorneys, engineers and energy industry analysts. And the Securities and Exchange Commission reported that approximately 72% of student loan repayments were made to employees in mission-critical occupations such as attorneys.
As in previous years, agencies reported the primary barrier to using student loan repayments for recruitment or retention is a lack of overall funding for the program. Other reported barriers were the corresponding three-year service agreement and the yearly cap of $10,000 on benefits. Some agencies reported that some job candidates or current employees were uncomfortable committing to three years of service in return for the student loan repayment benefit. However, a chief impediment to using the program may be need. Some agencies do not have hard-to-fill jobs or do not have recruitment or retention problems requiring the use of the student loan repayments. And with a hiring freeze on the horizon, it’s likely more agencies will use the program as a retention rather than recruiting tool.
The following departments or agencies provided loan repayment assistance to one or more attorneys: Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, Federal Trade Commission, Government Accountability Office, Library of Congress, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Postal Regulatory Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Surface Transportation Board.
The following departments or agencies provided loan repayment assistance to one or more JD advantage positions: Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Library of Congress, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and Securities and Exchange Commission.
In addition to the federal LRAP programs, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also reported it is working with the Department of Education to educate the federal workforce on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). This is good news on two fronts. First, federal employees across agencies have differing levels of understanding of how PSLF can work for them. With OPM collaborating with human resources personnel across agencies to develop effective strategies for communicating the available options, education on the program can only improve. Second, through OPM’s collaboration, perhaps some of the issues that have arisen as the first class of individuals come to loan forgiveness can be addressed quickly and in favor of borrowers.
To learn more about the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program, visit opm.gov or contact human resources representatives at the federal agencies in which you are most interested. Click here to view the complete report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management for Calendar Year 2015.
The White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (WH-LAIR) recently issued its first report to President Obama, “Expanding Access to Justice, Strengthening Federal Programs.” The report documents the steps that the 22 federal agency roundtable members have taken to integrate civil legal aid into programs designed to serve low-income and vulnerable populations, with an aim of boosting their effectiveness and increasing access to justice.
The report was funded by the Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice and serves as a blueprint for how federal agencies can expand their collaborations with legal aid to address issues such as domestic violence, human trafficking, crime, reentry, financial exploitation of the elderly, and veteran homelessness. The report includes research and data on the efficacy of legal aid and makes policy recommendations for improving access to civil legal aid for youth, families, tribal communities, and special populations.
The Department of Justice and the White House Domestic Policy Council first convened the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable in 2012. In September 2015, President Obama formally recognized the success of their efforts by designating the roundtable as a White House initiative, requiring annual reporting. WH-LAIR’s mission enumerated in the Presidential Memorandum is fivefold:
- improve coordination among federal programs that help the vulnerable and underserved, so that those programs are more efficient and produce better outcomes by including, where appropriate, legal services among the range of supportive services provided;
- increase the availability of meaningful access to justice for individuals and families, regardless of wealth or status;
- develop policy recommendations that improve access to justice in federal, state, local, tribal, and international jurisdictions;
- assist the United States with implementation of Goal 16 of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and
- advance relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis of civil legal aid and indigent defense, and promulgate best practices to support the activities detailed in [1-4 above].
Their efforts fall into four categories: leveraging resources to strengthen Federal programs by incorporating legal aid; developing policy recommendations that improve access to justice; facilitating strategic partnerships to achieve enforcement and outreach objectives; and advancing evidence-based research, data collection and analysis. One of the key components of LAIR’s work was the review of numerous federal grants from the perspective of potentially expanding the use of funds to incorporate legal aid into program strategies. As a result, many agencies clarified that dozens of grants can be used by grantees to provide legal services in furtherance of their program goals. The number of long-term, far-reaching and positive outcomes of the first four years of effort by member agencies are very encouraging.
Some key initiatives reported:
- HHS clarified that legal aid is included in the range of “enabling services” that HHS-funded health centers can provide to meet communities’ primary care needs.
- CNCS and DOJ fund the Elder Justice AmeriCorps to help elder abuse victims and launched justice AmeriCorps to increase legal aid to unrepresented unaccompanied immigrant minors.
- VA issued guidance supporting veterans’ access to legal aid at VA medical facilities.
- IRS administers three grant programs to help low-income and other taxpayers in need with tax returns and tax disputes.
- HUD funds fair housing enforcement organizations, including legal aid programs and a program that allows using funds for legal aid necessary to regain housing stability.
- FTC developed the Legal Services Collaboration, a nationwide partnership with legal aid, to inform FTC’s law enforcement priorities and allow FTC to alert local communities about scams and respond to local concerns.
- LSC is undertaking a new national legal needs survey to update the Justice Gap studies of 2005 and 2009.
- WH-LAIR itself has online resources that provide information about civil legal aid and federal funding opportunities on the WH-LAIR website and in the Toolkit.
WH-LAIR agencies are also looking forward to the steps they can take to further improve meaningful access to justice for all Americans. Several agencies are reviewing funding competitions and training and technical assistance programs to determine how grantees can use more funds to provide legal aid among program services. Agencies plan to develop a broader range of policies that further expanding access to justice and work towards effective implementation of those policies. Following the FTC’s lead with its Legal Services Collaboration, other agencies with enforcement mandates are exploring ways to work with legal aid to increase enforcement efforts and amplify their outreach. Finally, WH-LAIR agencies are developing metrics for evaluating whether and how legal aid improves agency programs.
This first report demonstrates in a variety of ways the vital importance of legal aid as part of federal programs and chronicles numerous program creation and expansions which have had a direct and positive impact on the communities and populations they serve. Moving forward, one goal is for agencies to use the best practices developed to further expand access to justice and strengthen federal programs.
The federal government has changed administrations since the beginning of our nation. However, this change in administration is unique in many ways, and is causing questions and concerns among those who seek a career in government or are currently in federal service. The most prevalent question I’ve been asked in the past month is, given my ideological beliefs or views on certain issues, should I enter federal service, or should I remain if I’m already there?
What should you do if you’re contemplating these questions? First, there is no “right” answer. What you do is dependent on many personal factors and whether you’re deciding on an internship or a permanent position. In talking with individuals who have made these decisions during a political transition, one thing is clear – no matter what administration is in office, there will always be a need for reasoned and principled attorneys in the federal government. Another point often raised is that the government is like a large ship – it changes course slowly. So, for instance, if you’re considering an internship, you might not see any significant difference in your agency of choice in the short-term. A third item to consider is the difference between ideology and government service at its most basic level. There are frequently ideological differences between administrations, but you will find career federal government attorneys continue to serve across administrations. One reason is the idea that giving back to the community is the duty of every lawyer, and federal service is a way to fulfill that duty. If you plan to make federal service a career choice, you may decide that you don’t want to wait to begin. If you’re already a government attorney, you may take the long view, and decide to stay in order to “have a say” in actions this administration takes. It is sometimes the career employee, and not the political appointee, who can have the most affect on policy implementation.
There are resources to help you sort out the factors that will guide your decision. Your best resource is always your Career Development Office. The experts there can help you talk through the factors that will influence your decision-making. They also have the expertise to counsel and support you throughout the process. Faculty and staff, particularly adjunct faculty, can also have great insight and on the ground experience with political transitions. Alumni who are or have been government attorneys are also a great resource. They have been there during a political transition, know what to expect, and can illustrate some of the advantages and pitfalls. Your career development or alumni office can put you in touch with an alum who can help you navigate these questions. For example, Harvard Law School Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising has kindly shared some of their alumni reflections on political transitions.
And seek out opinions from experts from the entirety of the political spectrum. Below are some of the discussions on what it might mean to serve or not to serve in a Trump administration.
Just Security, an online forum for the rigorous analysis of U.S. national security law and policy, has a series of posts on the “ethical and legal dilemmas of serving in the Trump administration.” (Just Security)
“Who Will Serve in the Trump Administration?” by Amy Davidson, November 21, 2016 (The New Yorker)
“The Dilemma of Serving in a Trump Administration” by Daniel W. Drezner, November 14, 2016 (Washington Post)
“The Chess Clock Debates: Is There a Duty to Serve In Trump’s America?” by Clara Hendrickson, November 21, 2016 (Lawfare)
Ultimately, whether you stay or go will depend on your individual moral and ethical compass. Lawyers are critically important at this time, and whether inside or outside the government, public sector lawyers may be the most critical need of all.
As a 2L, hearing Justice Kagan speak was truly moving. I teared up hearing her talk about Justice Thurgood Marshall. She recounted that being Solicitor General was his favorite job because he loved to say “I’m Thurgood Marshall and I represent the United States of America.” (I even teared up typing that—law school has fanned an unexpected patriotic wildfire in me!) She kept the whole room laughing for the entire hour. After explaining that one of her duties as the junior justice is to serve on the cafeteria committee, she admitted that her successful advocacy for the clerks’ desired dessert earned her the nickname “the frozen yogurt Justice.”
I also had the opportunity to see Ralph Nader speak about access to justice. Afterward, he stayed for over an hour to sign books and meet people. As he wrapped up I got to chat with him for 10 minutes or so along with a few other nearby law students. (Just a typical Friday, right? I wish!) I told him about the “unreasonably nerdy law student field trip” my fellow interns and I undertook this summer from Philadelphia to multiple sites of famous cases we studied during 1L, which culminated in a trip to Mr. Nader’s American Museum of Tort Law. I also found out he not only knows of the small plaintiff firm I will work for this upcoming summer but thinks one of them is “a legend.” He even asked for my business card!
I got to hang with some other amazing folks as well, who are not quite as far along in their careers. I met Zaire Selden, a 1L evening student in DC. We bonded over our shared passions for racial justice, got lunch, and then ran into Mr. Nader for that 10-minute chat (after which he gave Zaire a signed copy of his book). At the Student Networking Reception I met Shana Emile, a 3L in LA. We bonded over our shared passion about the School-to-Prison Pipeline. I also had the chance to hear about her summer internship with the Southern Poverty Law Center and tell her about my work advocating for Philadelphia children in school disciplinary hearings with our law student volunteer group, School Discipline Advocacy Service.
It was so restorative to connect with Zaire, Shana, and other law students who are trying to forge new public interest opportunities at their law schools. I encouraged them to apply to be EJW law student reps, and maybe even to be on the National Advisory Committee. (Okay you caught me in a shameless plug…but seriously, these are two great opportunities for law students that also help connect people to EJW resources and supports, so, why not!) I got to chat with law school professionals too, like Ray English from Arizona State University Law and Norma D’Apolito from Yale. I met a Temple Law alum, Qudsiya Naqui, and we got to gush about shared professors and all things Temple. And I met Christina Jackson and Delisa Morris, who encouraged me to write this blog post! Networking with other social justice minded law students and professionals was truly empowering and encouraging. I even have a phone call scheduled for next week with another law student to discuss how to create new public interest opportunities at her law school across the country.
I was also able to lay more concrete groundwork for job opportunities at table talks. Though I did not have any prescheduled interviews, I got to sit down with attorneys from the DOJ, Defender Association, and Capital Habeas Unit. I also scoped out the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Brennan Center. There truly are opportunities for everyone with any inclination toward social justice; I left with many business cards and new contacts.
There were great panels about social entrepreneurship, incubators, immigration, racial justice, debt, and more. We got to hear from successful attorneys like Lam Nguyen Ho about how they crafted opportunities to do their work. Listening to their stories enabled me to envision myself in their shoes one day soon.
My experience at the Equal Justice Works Career & Conference Fair is best summed up in this email I sent to someone the following day:
“Seriously, that was amazing. I’m in awe of how many awesome people I got to speak with doing such incredible work, and I am proud to just share the same space (or as Jojo said about Justice Kagan, breathe the same air!) as them.”
Justice Kagan said she is “a huge believer in serendipity…especially in legal careers.” Trust me when I say there are plenty of serendipitous moments at the CCF. With over 1000 students and 160 employers, how can there not be?
I hope to see you there next year!
Liz Schultz is a 2L at Temple Law. She can be reached at email@example.com
CALA recently celebrated its two-year anniversary with the “Two Years of Community Impact” event. The organization, located in Chicago, has collaborated with individuals to help their families stay together, fight violence, reunite across borders, and be empowered to help others. Within two-years CALA has impacted over 3500 people directly, and thousands more due to its support of community activism.
The organization’s staff of 10 has worked to unite lawyers and activists in the pursuit for justice. CALA leverages legal services to benefit marginalized individuals and communities. CALA takes a unique approach to legal services by operating within its target communities with partner organizations at free existing neighborhood spaces. CALA attorneys consistently balance individual cases and projects supporting CALA’s partners’ activism work .
Congratulations CALA on an excellent two years and many more to come.
Find out more about CALA’s work.
Check out CALA’s two-year anniversary E-Book.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released the first iteration of a rolling set of improvements to features to the job application components of the USAJOBS website. Check out their video explanation below:
Program Assistant, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School
Law students have lain in tense, reflective silence while holding signs that read, “Black Lives Matter.” They’ve chanted, “No justice. No peace. No racist police!” while blocking traffic. They’ve acted as legal observers, demanded inclusion at their schools, and called for long-term, systemic change. Many law schools have erupted in protest, activism and internal soul-searching after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Michael Brown case has become symbolic of rampant police brutality against communities of color in the United States and sparked an outpouring of anger and protests across the country. This movement against police abuse gained momentum after another grand jury declined to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American, on Staten Island. Because many see these cases as failures of the criminal justice system, the voices of law schools, students, faculty and staff, who have spoken out against police abuse and institutionalized racism in light of recent events in a plethora of ways, are an especially significant part of this movement.
PROTESTS AND EVENTS
From Berkeley to New Haven, law students have organized protests in solidarity with national protests after the grand jury verdicts. Over 200 law students, faculty and staff participated in a die-in at UC Berkeley School of Law on December 10, in which about 40 people laid down in front of the law school for 15 and a half minutes. Eleven minutes symbolized the number of times Eric Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe,” while in a chokehold. Four and a half minutes symbolized the number of hours Michael Brown’s body was left in the street after he was shot dead. Similarly, over 500 members of Yale Law School led a die-in, lying in the street for four and a half minutes in New Haven on December 5.
Students, faculty and staff have also joined national and community protests for justice, both as representatives of their institutions or groups and as individuals. In New York, members of many law schools, including Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, Fordham, New York and Touro, marched in the Millions March on December 13. In general, the recent protests have been noticeably youthful, and law students have been visibly present at the various actions.
As with most controversial legal issues, law schools have sought to foster dialogue about Ferguson and racial disparity in the US through forums and other events. Lewis and Clark Law School held two open forums on the shootings and grand jury verdicts. At The University of Washington School of Law, over 200 people attended a discussion led by Seattle Defense Attorney Jeffrey Robinson on Ferguson, policing in communities of color, and the criminal justice system. Many schools will host follow-up events in the spring on the issues Ferguson has brought to surface.
ORGANIZING AND ACTIVISM
Law schools and students are uniquely positioned to legally address the situation in Ferguson and surrounding issues. Recognizing this, student organizations like chapters of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) have sprung into action. The National BLSA developed an activism toolkit on organizing strategies, possible campaigns and students’ rights when protesting.
Law students are “the ones who can affect change because it is the lawyers who will essentially change the law,” Kim Brimm, National Director of Public Relations for the NBLSA, said. “Some of us will become senators, and some of us will become governors, and councilmen, so it definitely starts with us.”
True to Ms. Brimm’s words, individual BLSA chapters have already started. In the wake of recent events, law students have begun working within their local communities to address police brutality and racial disparities. Harvard’s BLSA has been working with Professor Ronald Sullivan to draft model local cameras-on-cops legislation. The group also hosted a conference on police relations in Boston and Cambridge, which over 200 community members attended. The conference featured a “Know Your Rights” workshop and a dialogue with Boston and Cambridge police, which was “really, really powerful,” McKenzie Morris, president of Harvard’s BLSA, said.
In Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania School of Law’s BLSA has been working with the American Civil Liberties Union on two projects on stop-and-frisk and civil access forfeiture. In partnership with the local organization Disproportionate Minority Contact, they also hope to launch a program next spring that will educate local law enforcement on adolescent psychology and facilitate dialogues between police officers and students in largely minority and disadvantaged schools, Dorian Simmons, President of UPenn’s BLSA, said.
Other law school communities have taken public stances on more national stages. To raise awareness and show solidarity, a wide array of student groups and some law school communities released statements condemning the non-indictments and calling for meaningful reform. A statement by members of Fordham Law School, which garnered over 350 signatures, expresses support for “thoughtful reforms such as demilitarization of our nation’s police forces and shifting the focus of enforcement away from tactics that have disparate racial impact.” An open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Holder, which was drafted by Harvard Law School’s BLSA, garnered over 1,000 signatures – almost half of the law school. The letter calls for action against a system that devalues black lives, including through the use of body-worn cameras by police, and the prosecution of police officers who have killed unarmed minorities.
Several schools and student groups have also engaged in media campaigns, including Northwestern, Harvard, UCLA, and Fordham law schools. They participated in the #handsupdontshoot campaign by taking photos in front of their law school signs with their hands raised. This fall, the Harvard’s BLSA even launched their own media campaign, featuring similar photos of students.
OBSERVATION AS ACTION
One of the most distinct ways that law students have engaged in recent actions is through legal observing, in which neutral individuals monitor and document the activities of demonstrators and their interactions with law enforcement at the request of organizers. When the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee (FLDC), an organization providing legal support to the Ferguson community, issued a call to action for law students, many responded by volunteering as legal observers, while others provided research support. Nicholas Klaus, a 3L at Wayne State University School of Law and Co-Student National Vice President of the NLG, made two trips to Ferguson in October and November, traveling with two fellow classmates in November. “I felt like I had a duty to go,” Klaus said. “I felt like there was a call to do something. I was in a position to do the work. It’s what I came to law school to do, and so, we went.”
Watching and documenting demonstrators’ interactions with police, Klaus observed (and experienced) police use of pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protestors during his trips, which may prove important in defense of criminal charges brought against protestors and in affirmative litigation against such police practices.
With many student chapters of the NLG conducting observer trainings, legal observing by law students has also been prominent at community protests. Legal observing “allows people who would otherwise be pretty moderate to be a part of the movement without actually having to participate,” said Meredith Osborne, Co-Chair of University of Michigan Law School’s NLG chapter. “They can kind of be this ‘neutral observer,’ but in reality they know that they are there on behalf of the organizers.”
As protests continue, so does the need for observers. Osborne and her NLG chapter have been acting as legal observers for demonstrations in the Ann Arbor area since the summer and plan to conduct observer trainings every semester in light of an increase in interest from students.
Nothing is more local for law students than their own law schools communities. Student coalitions at Georgetown, Columbia, and Harvard law schools have called on their own schools to become more inclusive of minority students and to address racism on campus. “As students of color on campus, we feel very isolated,” said a 2L African-American Coalition member at Georgetown who asked to remain anonymous. “The Coalition basically formed out of a feeling that we needed to do more, and get the university to really listen to what our needs are and what our problems are with the way the people of color are treated on campus.”
Generally, each coalition is demanding institutional support for students affected by recent events, a public statement by their respective administrations on Ferguson, exam extensions on an individual basis, and continuing initiatives to address diversity on campus, including diversity training. Schools have begun to respond to these demands, with all three schools beginning dialogues with the coalitions and Columbia Law School granting exam extensions.
In this time of reflection, some law schools have implemented or are considering new programs addressing diversity and racial disparity in the justice system. For example, Columbia Law School launched an online forum on police accountability, complete with fact sheets on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases written by faculty, for interested students who want more information for informed conversations with family and friends. The school is also considering small group discussions on the issues surrounding Ferguson and a parallel orientation or year-long program for 1Ls on how race, gender, poverty and social exclusion intersect with the law, said Ellen Chapnick, Dean for Social Justice Initiatives at Columbia Law School.
Activism around and the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has opened a space for public conversations addressing police brutality, racism and failures of the justice system in the US. Law school communities are seizing this moment of opportunity to explore innovative and creative ways to frame these dialogues and push for justice in Ferguson and beyond.
The Skadden Foundation has announced its Class of 2015 Fellows. Twenty-eight Fellows, hailing from 16 law schools will begin their projects next year. Five schools had multiple fellowship awardees; Harvard (6); NYU (2); Stanford (2); Yale (4); and U Penn (3). Fellows come from the other following schools: Michigan State, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, Chicago-Kent, Georgetown, Columbia, UC Irvine, Villanova, Loyola (LA), American University, and Suffolk. The Fellows will work in 11 states, focusing on issues ranging from the wrongful denial of Medicaid claims for poor, disabled children in Texas to the barriers to housing, employment and education for low-income LGBTQ youth with criminal records in Illinois.
For comparison’s sake, here’s how previous Skadden Fellowship classes have looked:
- 2014: 28 Fellows from 16 law schools;
- 2013: 28 Fellows from 16 law schools;
- 2012: 28 Fellows from 16 law schools;
- 2011: 29 Fellows from 21 law schools;
- 2010: 27 Fellows from 20 law schools;
- 2009: 28 Fellows from 14 law schools.
Congratulations to the Class of 2015! We look forward to the amazing work you will do!
Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015
First, the news:
Yesterday afternoon, two UN-appointed human rights investigators with mandates to understand and develop the human right to adequate housing and the human right to water (respectively) concluded their three-day investigation into Detroit’s ongoing humanitarian crisis with a press conference at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel.
According to their press release, the UN experts were “deeply startled” by the magnitude of people affected: “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children.” As the UN News Center reports, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water was particularly blunt: “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” The UN investigators called on the City of Detroit, the Federal government, and other lawmaking authorities to take a variety of steps to remedy Detroit’s problems and to protect against similar vulnerabilities elsewhere.
When people ask me what I would do if I could work on anything, I don’t blink: Water Affordability. This moment seems a perfect time to grab my first soapbox. Every once in awhile, I’ll take a break from more typical PSJD blogging to write about issues that matter to me personally as an advocate. This is a big one. The recent UN visit to Detroit invites a few questions which I’ll try to address in this post: First, is access to water for domestic uses a human right? Second, are thousands of people in Detroit really without the means to pay their bills? And third, why are some of the UN’s recommendations aimed at government actors generally—isn’t this a Detroit problem? In brief: yes, yes, and no.
The Human Right to Water – An Emergent Norm
Access to water for drinking and sanitation is a human right. It is explicitly mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has discussed at length the right’s implicit presence within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (ICESCR) “right to an adequate standard of living.” Within the last few years, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have adopted resolutions formally recognizing the human right to water.
Granted, UN resolutions are not binding, and the United States has not ratified either CEDAW or the ICESCR. That’s likely why the Special Rapporteur’s comments yesterday were carefully shaded, discussing Detroit’s disconnections as “contrary to,” rather than “a violation of,” human rights. That doesn’t make her wrong. The idea that human beings have a right to water for limited domestic purposes (drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation) and that states must progressively realize this right among the people they govern is an increasingly well-accepted international norm. Other countries may not have the means to provide water, but we do. And yet we do not. We are disconnecting thousands of people from water services for circumstances beyond their control, contrary to this emergent norm. Whether the United States has a legal obligation or not, it has failed its people in the eyes of the international community. That ought to be a big deal.
Water Affordability – A Nationwide Issue
So far, though, I’ve assumed that people losing access to water in Detroit have no control over their situation. As the Special Rapporteur said, disconnections are contrary to human rights only if the people disconnected “do not have the means to pay their bills.” How do I know that the residents of Detroit—half of whom were subject to disconnection notices this past summer—are actually that insolvent? It may be difficult to accept, but water is increasingly priced beyond the reach of many low-income families.
We’re used to thinking of water as inexpensive because for a long time the way we’ve managed it has prevented us from feeling the true cost of water service. For one thing, we’ve deferred maintenance on our water system for so long that estimates for the cost of renovations run from the hundreds of billions to the low trillions. Moreover, when we do pay up, it’ll be in a financial regime under which rate-payers are covering a much higher proportion of the tab than they used to. In previous phases of infrastructure development, state and federal governments would cover some costs in the form of grants. In the 1980s, we replaced these grants with loans, pushing water systems to charge their customers full-cost or nearly full-cost rates (see page 21). In the last 20 years, regular ratepayers have financed 90% of water and wastewater investments in the United States.
Logically, low-income households are the first to feel the pressure. The US Conference of Mayors and the American Water Works Association consider water to be “unaffordable” for households which must devote more than 2% of their monthly income to water bills. Little data available describes how many people in the United States live under these conditions, but what there is is discouraging. For example, the Pacific Institute recently estimated that over 100,000 households in the Sacramento region pay more than this 2% threshold. (Not people, households.)
As far as I know, most of these Sacramento households are still paying for water. The Pacific Institute’s study merely suggests they’re seriously struggling to afford their bills. Rules for how water utilities may proceed against customers in arrears vary from location to location, but many utilities will disconnect customers who fail to pay them. This measure might make sense in a system where water is cheap enough to be readily affordable for most people. In such a system, being disconnected would be a wakeup call to poorly-organized or dishonest individuals to take out their wallets and pay into the system. Disconnections would be brief, and would prevent anyone from freeloading.
But we don’t live in that system. When people genuinely can’t afford their water bills, they can’t simply pay up. Even if they find the money (and Detroit has had some success with collections through its shutoff campaign), qualitative research in Detroit and Boston suggests that families often turn their water back on by giving up prescription medications, food, or other essential goods also protected by human rights principles. If they can’t find the money, prolonged disconnections create severe consequences for affected families who find themselves unable to bathe at home (making it harder to stay employed), unable to cook or do laundry, forced to send children to live with relatives so child protective services won’t place them in foster care, and at risk of losing their homes entirely.
Struggling households aren’t asking for water to be free. Only for it to be affordable. If it were, some experts think water utilities might actually collect more revenue, not less. When customers genuinely can’t afford their bills, disconnecting them is more likely to result in default. The utility loses one of its customers, and must raise rates on every other customer in order to pay off the fixed cost of its infrastructure. If water utilities were to keep customers paying into the system at whatever rate they could manage (based on ability to pay), they would be able to put more toward these fixed costs than if they leave many former customers disconnected.
Looking Beyond Detroit
So far, much of the coverage of Detroit’s water crisis has assumed that the problem is specific to Detroit. I hope I’ve made the case it isn’t. As a nation, we’ve under-financed our water infrastructure and changed our finance strategies to rely on local ratepayers instead of state or federal tax dollars. As water becomes unaffordable for many Americans (just how many is hard to determine), the collections policies of many of our water utilities continue to assume it’s cheap. Detroit isn’t the only city where water disconnections are causing widespread human suffering: the problem is also significant in more prosperous cities like Boston. We don’t know how many such cities there are, and any city where large numbers of households struggle with their water bills is one economic shock away from the level of injustice and suffering that’s brought the United Nations’ humanitarian experts to Detroit’s doorstep. The citizens of Detroit who have been struggling to call attention to this issue for years are not freeloaders, but whistleblowers, working valiantly to inform the public of a hidden danger to us all.
I think the UN’s independent experts understand this. Speaking yesterday, they directed their recommendations not only to the City of Detroit but to the country generally. With one recommendation in particular, I think they’ve identified the smallest, simplest and easiest first step: They want federal and state agencies to deny funding and permits to water utilities that refuse to report annually on their water shutoff practices. From talking with non-profits focused on this issue, I’ve learned that the reason there’s little information about water affordability is because water utilities have resisted non-profits’ questions about their customer bases and survey methods like those used in Sacramento and Boston are difficult and expensive to implement. Tying utilities’ funding and development permissions to these reporting requirements would require only a small commitment from governments, but would generate the information we all need to truly understand the scale of this problem and –hopefully–will bring us one step closer to forming the political resolve we need to fix it.