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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Impact of federal budgeting on legal services for the poor

Gerber discusses the impact of federal budgeting on legal services for the poor from the 1970s, under Nixon and Carter, through the 1980s, under Reagan and Bush. After giving a brief overview of how federal budgeting in the 1970s made it possible to create a number of services for legal aid and describing how this worked in North Carolina, Gerber describes how budget cuts under Reagan severely limited the effectiveness of such programs. Her comments reveal legal networks and their obstacles in North Carolina.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

In 1977, when Jimmy Carter was, in the years leading up to Jimmy Carter's presidency, legal services was in its heyday so to speak. I don't know that you know this, but it became what it is today, the Legal Services Corporation Act, it was literally the last act signed into law by Richard Nixon of all people. It just shows you how far to the right the country has moved in some ways, because, in those days, even though Richard Nixon didn't begin to match the conservatism of a Ronald Reagan or George Bush, and you know, there were reasons he was forced into it but regularly never signed it.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
But still it got done.
ELLEN W. GERBER:
It got done. O.K., so Congress began to mandate at some point in the mid 70's, '76, Congress mandated that there should be access to legal services for the poor for everyone in the United States. So they upped the budget, increased the budget in order to provide for them. They set an arbitrary and very funny figure of $7.00 per poor person. The sort of formula by which they appropriated money. But at any rate, that was Congress' idea, and so at that time then in the late 70's, well, it must have been about '76 or so, that we got legal services in North Carolina. The bar worked on and founded it. So in the late 70's legal services of North Carolina opened offices all over the state under their auspices so that there were the three original offices that had been funded even before the corporation act, under the old OEO, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, the Office of Economic Opportunity and that was under one of the original antipoverty programs and legal services fell under that in the Johnson era. We were and the bars were able to apply and that's how the bars of each of those cities applied for a grant, started a legal services office in their city. So those offices have to this day remained independent in the sense that they are funded directly from Washington. Legal Services of North Carolina is the fourth grantee of the state, and it's funded, and then it funds and oversees all the rest of the programs in the state, Burlington to Asheville, all of those. Those are all under aid service in North Carolina with which we are affiliated but we're still funded. So that has all grown in the state, since I've started practicing, you know, we had developed offices all over the state. We developed consistent training programs throughout the state. There were national training programs that were wonderful. As a new lawyer I went to new advocate training in Atlanta with others from the Southeast region. There were office support back-up centers established; consumer law, housing law, family law, welfare all over the, you know that you call on to assistance and then do publications aimed at legal services. There was a training coordinator in D.C. There were all these things that were established based on this money that Congress was appropriating and supporting and the bar supported it, everything was well immersed. In 1980 when Reagan was in office, Reagan and Meese, collectively and individually, hated legal services. They hated them because when they were out in California, trying to do their dirty work in California, and to cut programs for the poor, legal services, CRLA, California Rural Legal Assistance, which is what legal services was called out there, legal services out there fought them bitterly and won in the courts and prevented them from doing these cuts. And the net result was that they were implacably opposing legal services when they came to Washington. I read an interview with Ed Meese in the American Lawyer and the chief said, in his view, legal services offices were run by lesbians who used their power to recruit so they could seduce young women attorneys. That was in print, that's in print. Those guys were really something. So from Reagan's first budget on, they recommended zero funding for legal services. When Jimmy Carter left office, the funding nationally was something around $316,000,000. It was cut back in 1982 to $277,000,000 nationally. You're talking about inflation, think of inflation. It just reached in 1991 the level it was when Jimmy Carter left office. So, and in addition to cutting off funding, so, again not only are the numbers cut absolutely, but if you think of what inflation was during that decade, the numbers are cut more in half and worse. In addition to cutting the funding, they also installed in Washington, a corporation board that was opposed to legal services, hated us. And so they restaffed the office with people that hated the programs and they changed their focus, instead of assisting programs by providing training and publications and you know you'd have a monitor visit, the monitors would come down and check you out, and they were there to help you, to make your program better. Under Reagan and now Bush, the monitors were out to sabotage you, their whole focus was how they could dig up dirt to hurt you. They never had any helpful suggestions. Just the most awful stuff like the tax IRS fund while they would pick a program that was particularly effective, like a farm workers program and they would monitor them to death, hoping to reduce their effectiveness. They hated farm workers most of all. This is again the hangover from what California did against the farm workers. The farm workers are the most vulnerable minority in this country, this little group of migrant workers. You know, they were minorities to begin with and secondly they're "vagrants" in a sense. You know, they have nobody to speak for them, so legal services all over the country where there are a lot of farm workers, including North Carolina, is very effective in enforcing laws that Congress and the states have passed to protect these people, which always went unenforced because of such difficulty. And legal services would go to court and have the farm workers plan to be slaves and that they're not getting the minimum wage. That sort of thing, the housing doesn't meet the standards of the state, the drinking water isn't, you know there are all kinds of those things and so if there is ever a hot spot that the critics focus on is its farm workers. So you have all that sort of problem going on and in '82, '83 our office, like every office all over the country, had to face the fact that our budget had just plummeted.