Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do. Saint Thomas Aquinas Two Precepts of Charity
It is National Pro Bono Week and if you are here for that up-beat, positive, celebratory post you’ve come to the wrong place – there is a crying need for pro bono services in rural areas which, for the most part, is going largely unanswered and that is just plain depressing.
The need is very real – based on 2000 Census data, 459 of the 500 poorest counties in the nation are rural, 481 of the 500 counties with the lowest per-capita income are rural, and rural counties with poverty rates above the national average outnumber urban counties by 5 to 1. The rural poor are more likely to be married and more likely to be working than their urban counterparts, but they are also more likely to be generationally poor and chronically under-employed as well.
The problem is very real – an ABA survey shows that only 20 percent of lawyers live in towns/areas with populations of less 50,000 or less, and that distance and travel demands, lack of technology and associated infrastructure, and lack of supporting resources constrain the availability of pro bono services. The prevailing perception seems to be that because no one lives in rural counties and even if they did their legal problems are so trivial that it is not worth expending resources in these areas. It is a case of too few, too small, too hard, why bother.
The issues are complex – the rural poor’s issues cannot simply be addressed on the courthouse steps; a legal issue does not stand alone, there are economic and community issues to be addressed as well. For example, domestic violence victims are faced with access problems to shelters, inappropriate information-sharing (or to be less PC – gossip and rumors) between community members and members of the legal system. Many victims often care for livestock – another roadblock to their getting to safety as few if any shelters are equipped to board a herd of cattle. For the rural farmer and the family farm the continually changing maze of state and federal regulations create roadblocks to timely access to adequate operating credit which leads to families barely scraping by economically and creates an ever present threat of foreclosure and dispossession. Foreclosure is not simply a blot on the rural farmer’s credit rating – it often means the loss of a home, of a family’s generational history, of a means of employment, and position in the community. These are not problems that can be solved with a well crafted defense or a timely TRO, they require a much more holistic approach.
The good news is that the legal profession has begun to recognize the problem – OK, but now what? How do we get the modern, high tech, uber-connected, well-intentioned lawyer to direct hers/his pro bono efforts away from that comfortable (relatively) legal clinic and towards that turn-of-the-century, low tech, unconnected, uncomfortable barnyard?