CUNY School of Law launched the Economic Justice Project (EJP) in 1997 in response to the social justice crisis triggered by regressive welfare reform legislation. One of the tragic consequences of welfare reform in New York City is that thousands of individuals who had been pursuing CUNY degrees were forced to quit school in order to fulfill workfare requirements. Most of these individuals were single mothers struggling to obtain the skills and credentials needed for the types of job that could lift their families out of poverty.
The EJP has responded to this challenge on several fronts by providing direct representation to hundreds of CUNY undergraduates, collaborating closely with and supporting the organizing and political efforts of the Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) and other grassroots organizations, and working with others engaged in legislative and other systemic advocacy. In recognition of these efforts, the New York State Bar Association selected the Project for the President’s Pro Bono Service Law Student Group Award in 2002, and the Clinical Legal Education Association gave the Project its Award for Excellence in 2004. The theory, genesis and structure of the Project are described in Poverty Law and Community Activism: Notes From a Law School Clinic, 150 U. Pa .L. Rev. 173 (2001).
Highlights of the Economic Justice Project
- Representing CUNY undergraduates at contested welfare hearings to protect their entitlement to benefits and advance their right to pursue college educations
- Collaborating closely with the Welfare Rights Initiative to secure public policies that expand welfare recipients' access to higher education as a path out of poverty
- Working with advocates for legislative reforms at the federal, state and local levels
- Conducting public outreach and education sessions, and producing public education materials
Typical Student Practice
Recently, EJP was referred a case by the Welfare Rights Initiative in which New York City was attempting to terminate welfare benefits of a Bronx woman with two children for failure to complete a workfare assignment. The assignment was inconsistent with her medical limitations and conflicted with her academic schedule at Bronx Community College where she was working towards an Associate's Degree in Business Administration. The legal intern filed an appeal contesting the proposed termination of benefits and argued successfully at the administrative hearing for the reversal of the city's action and the restoration of benefits.
In the course of handling the welfare issue, the legal intern learned about an eviction action filed against the family in Bronx Housing Court. The intern accompanied the client to Housing Court where the landlord agreed to discontinue the eviction action. The legal intern is now working with the client to locate appropriate medical services and has advised her how to remain in college without risking another termination of welfare benefits. The client is scheduled to graduate college in June.
In addition to the representation of individuals, each intern participates in a project workgroup. These workgroups address some issue of ongoing significance to EJP clients and/or engage in joint advocacy efforts with the WRI. Some examples of project work from last semester include:
- Working with advocates to secure reauthorization of New York State's Workstudy/Internship law which prohibits workfare assignments that unreasonably interfere with a college student's academic schedule and allows workstudy and internship hours to count towards a student's workfare requirement
- Collaborating with grass-roots public advocacy organizations in education and training efforts that address the right to attend school
- Training on access to reproductive health choices
- Training and presentations focusing on access to public benefits for victims of domestic violence, immigrants, and individuals transitioning off public assistance
- Educating EJP clients about the possible effect of marriage incentives
The EJP seminar provides intensive instruction in social welfare law, administrative law and related doctrines that bear on the project's practice. We connect this rigorous legal training to broader perspectives through exploration of the historical, ideological and constitutional roots of social welfare policies and institutions in the United States, the politics of welfare reform, class, race and gender critiques of welfare policy, and comparative analyses of U.S. policies with those in other industrialized nations. We teach lawyering skills with special attention to multi-cultural lawyering, lawyering for subordinated groups and theories of social change.
Collaborative and Community Practice
From its inception, the EJP has worked in close collaboration with the Welfare Rights Initiative, a grass-roots community organization based at Hunter College. As the legal arm and counsel to WRI, the EJP provides legal training and support for WRI lay advocates, staff and counselors, assisting in the production of public education materials and position papers to facilitate outreach and advocacy efforts. EJP interns conduct joint community education and training sessions with WRI.
In addition, EJP has committed, insofar as possible, to represent any CUNY student referred by WRI. Over the past seven years, WRI and the EJP have engaged together in a broad array of advocacy, educational and social change activity that includes individual representation permitting over 1,500 CUNY students to remain in school, organizing, public education, and legislative advocacy that recently yielded progressive reforms to state and local welfare laws.
Our graduates have successfully engaged in many areas of legal practice including community economic development, disability rights, domestic violence, criminal defense, LGBT rights, immigration law, elder law and poverty law advocacy. Graduates practice in a variety of settings including work in solo and small firm practice, legal services, public interest organizations, community organizations and government offices. A more in-depth look at our graduates' work is available.
Social Justice Mission
EJP was founded in response to the social justice emergency created by implementation of harsh welfare reform policies in New York City. The project works to counteract these effects with a combination of targeted individual representation and advocacy for systemic change, including legislative initiatives and related support for organizing and public education.
EJP works in close collaboration with Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) whose agenda includes both the immediate problem of access to education for poor people and the broader social justice questions concerning the nature and content of the public debate and political process relating to poverty, economic justice, welfare and the poor.
We encourage the students to examine and struggle with the professional and social-justice implications of lawyering for the disempowered and lawyering within an unjust system, including consideration of client autonomy and client empowerment. We also ask the students to engage in a model of collaboration with WRI that places lawyers in a facilitative role and to consider and critique EJP as a model of lawyering focused in substantial part on support for an activist partner organization.