April 15, 2012
In 1996, when Congress enacted federal welfare reform, “CUNY began hemorrhaging thousands of students,” according to Stephen Loffredo, director of the Economic Justice Project (EJP) at CUNY Law.
At the time, some 25,000 CUNY undergraduates received public assistance benefits, and many of them were mothers of young children. The reform forced many students to leave school to meet new “workfare” requirements in order to ensure that they received the assistance they needed to support their families.
Enter the Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) at Hunter College, which was launched in response to this crisis. Led by students who had experience with welfare, WRI trained other students to organize and take on welfare policies that forced them and others out of school. When it launched, WRI had one problem: There was no one to legally represent students who were dropping out as they fought for their benefits.
“As the law school in the CUNY system, we felt compelled to help these students and also to protect the University’s historic mission of providing access to poor and working-class people,” Loffredo said. “Most poverty lawyers will tell you that progressive change rarely comes from a judge’s pen; it requires the patient, sustained work of organizers and activists pressing to alter the politics and policies of poverty and economic justice. We saw an opportunity to forge a collaboration that would advance WRI’s efforts at creating systemic change and, in the process, connect our law students to this critical, collaborative aspect of social justice lawyering.” With support from the Law School administration and the University, EJP opened its doors in late 1996, just weeks after the enactment of federal welfare reform.
Fifteen years later, EJP, in coalition with WRI and other community and advocacy groups, is still fighting for access to higher education, which was not something Loffredo had anticipated. “I thought we would only be around four or five years, until more reasoned policymaking had a chance to push back on the anti-poor politics of the 1990s,” he said. Research shows that when people earn a bachelor’s degree, most are able to land better-paying jobs and leave the welfare system. “Higher education is the key to upward mobility; cutting poor people off from that opportunity may have made political sense in some quarters, but it was a terrible policy choice,” and one that Loffredo thought would be short-lived. “But, as it turned out, [EJP] couldn’t close up shop after five years or after 10, and here it is, 15 years later. The need continues to exist,” he said.
In those 15 years, however, the impact of EJP has become very clear. The project has represented hundreds of CUNY students; won nearly all of its cases; and seen countless students graduate from CUNY, secure good jobs, and move their families out of poverty. “For many of these students,” Loffredo said, “the opportunity to graduate college has been immediately transformative and has dramatically improved the life chances of their children.”
This strong success may be at least partially attributed to CUNY Law students themselves. “They come ready to work with clients. They bring diverse backgrounds and sometimes personal experience with poverty or poverty work that makes them a passionate group,” said Degna Levister, supervising attorney in EJP. “I almost can’t imagine this project happening at another school. Students self-select to take this seminar. They demonstrate a clear commitment to public interest lawyering. They are the embodiment of the Law School’s mission.”
Loffredo and Levister work with second-year CUNY Law students to help them build the skills necessary to become excellent public interest lawyers—all while representing students from across CUNY who are fighting to keep their public assistance benefits and stay in school. Interviewing clients, preparing for trial, developing written and oral advocacy skills, and learning how and when to make procedural and substantive arguments are all part of the package of skills EJP students gain.
In 2000, a coalition that included WRI and EJP was able to get New York State to pass the Work-Study and Internship Law, which allows work-study and internship hours to count toward a college student’s public assistance work requirement and prohibits welfare officials from unreasonably interfering with the student’s ability to attend classes. “The enactment of that law has changed lives,” Loffredo said. “It created breathing room for low-income students that has made the difference between educational success and failure, between remaining trapped on welfare and climbing out of poverty.”
Although both Loffredo and Levister hope that the need for EJP disappears, looking forward, they see their work continuing on several fronts. These include issues related to students who are facing disabilities or mental health concerns, or who are experiencing domestic violence—students who are not always able to meet all the requirements for receiving their benefits.
“We like to think that the existence of this project for 15 years has made the CUNY community aware that college students struggling with these issues have a place to go—an in-the-family support system,” said Levister.