Civil legal services lawyers in the District of Columbia say that nearly two weeks in to the government shutdown, their low-income clients are hurting, from furloughed workers living paycheck-to-paycheck to retirees who can't get help from shuttered federal agencies.
The day before the shutdown began on October 1, Legal Counsel for the Elderly attorney Daniela de la Piedra had a client who hadn't gotten his September social security benefits check. When de la Piedra called the agency responsible for certifying the check, she was told they could no longer help because they were preparing for the shutdown.
The client needed the money to pay his mortgage and buy food, de la Piedra said. He later received his benefits check for October, she said, but at the time, "it was very disheartening-I was completely helpless."
The shutdown, caused by a budget impasse in Congress, is affecting low-income clients on a number of fronts, said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center. The shutdown is "compounding an already frayed safety net," she said, pointing to frozen federal payments to local health care providers and uncertainty about the status of government assistance for necessities such as food and clothing.
On October 2, one day after the government shutdown started, de la Piedra had a client ask for help paying a federal income tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service. The client was paying $230 per month, more than she could afford.
De la Piedra said normally she could call the IRS and halt the payments while they worked out an installment plan, but when she called, she got a recorded message saying the office was closed due to the shutdown. "I told [the client] there was nothing we could do," de la Piedra said.
Daniel Bruner, legal services director for Whitman Walker Health, said his office had a recent client facing a health insurance crisis, but because she was furloughed, she couldn’t get documents she needed that were in her office. "That’s a real problem," he said.
Whitman Walker Health's legal services arm serves a number of transgender clients, and Bruner said the shutdown halted work on processing changes to official documents such as passports.
Maggie Donahue, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, recently worked with a client at risk of being evicted because she couldn't make rent payments while furloughed. "People forget that many workers affected by this shut down are low wage workers, often supporting families on a single paycheck, who may face devastating consequences-like eviction from their homes-if they don't get their paychecks on time," she said in an email.
Lawyers pointed to a slew of other shutdown-related changes affecting low-income clients. For instance, the federally funded District of Columbia Superior Court, which was forced to scale back operations during the shutdown, was no longer offering in-court childcare. Hannah Lieberman, executive director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, said that placed an additional burden on low-income litigants and jurors who still had to come to court.
Lieberman said her organization hasn't seen clients coming in with shutdown-related issues so far, but lawyers and staff are preparing for an uptick in work as the shutdown continues.
"At the beginning of these things you think it's not going to last, but who knows," she said.