Free legal support services help access to tax credits, healthcare, domestic abuse, and immigration
Updated: Jun 11
Economic injustice causes the need for legal services
Legal services organizations like Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, North Carolina provide free civil legal services to help middle- and low-income people meet basic needs and be more productive.
The number of people with middle- and low-incomes may be growing.
Wages and benefits are not keeping up with costs.
That means that low- and middle-income people don’t have money to pay common expenses like a mortgage, rent or car payments, home and auto repairs, childcare, and utility bills, nor the experience and connections to get help.
For many, that means they take more than one job
They may be facing eviction or domestic violence and not now where to turn.
They may not know how to access government disability programs, tax credits, or healthcare coverage.
They may not know how to restore a driver’s license that has been revoked, so they can get to a job interview or work, a court date, or a doctor’s appointment for example.
Services that can provide financial support to help people be more productive
Delaying eviction to avoid homelessness
Rents and mortgagees become especially unaffordable where homes and apartments have been converted to short-term rental properties, like AirBnBs, because there are fewer long-term rentals available.
When people become over-burdened by their mortgage and lease payments, they may not be able to afford basic necessities like car payments, utility bills, and food.
This can lead to eviction.
Many people leave after the landlord tells them they are evicted when they don’t have to because evictions must be approved in court.
A legal services organizations can help people navigate the eviction process, allowing people to stay longer, while they find a place and ensure landlords don’t do illegal things like cut off electricity.
Helping to select government-provided healthcare coverage
If a family experiences a costly medical event, its ability to pay all its bills could be at risk, leading to eviction and loss of transportation.
That can lead to homelessness and unemployment.
Some families can get subsidies for health insurance based on the Affordable Care Act.
At first, the subsidies were not generous, so few people applied.
Now, more people are eligible, so people should try again.
A legal service organization can help people get health coverage via Medicaid, and if they make too much to qualify for that, a legal services organization can help them benefit from the Affordable Care Act.
Having lower-cost health coverage reduces the monthly premium and can reduce medical and prescription bills less.
Receiving earned income tax credits even though one hasn’t paid taxes because they are too poor
Even people who earn less than $20,000 a year, who typically don’t have to file an income tax return, may qualify for tax credits in the thousands of dollars.
Credits can be earned retroactively based on income, or lack thereof, up to three years ago.
Many people are concerned they might be in trouble for not filing, but they won’t be.
It may be possible to receive a credit it you earned more than a poverty-level income
People are often afraid they will lose Medicaid, a housing subsidy, or food stamps if they get tax credits.
Tax credits are not counted as income, so people will not lose the other benefits.
However, the credits are assets, so people should ask how to handle that.
Receiving child-related tax credits for families with children under 18 years-old
These credit are available back to 2021
For example, families n North Carolina can get $3,300 for a child six or older and $3,600 for children under six years old.
Mixed status families with children born in the United States are eligible, but parents are often afraid to seek benefits.
The services are confidential, so there is no risk.
Helping people get their driver’s license restored when it has been revoked
People whose driver’s licenses have been revoked often cannot get to a court date or to work.
They may be penalized for both in additional fines or losing their jobs.
People should call their local legal services organization to see if they qualify.
Variables include income, family size, ages of children and potentially more
People can be unemployed, temporarily unemployed, and have earned a lot of money in the past but don’t now.
The legal services organization is typically certified by the IRS and helps people navigate the system to understand what to do and how to apply for the benefits. It provides options.
Meetings with them are confidential, so personal information is not shared with the government.
It is up to the individual whether to file a return to get the tax credits or apply for the health benefits.
They typically provide multilingual services
They typically refer people to other service organizations as needed.
Education and Advocacy can lead to a more productive and healthy society
Volunteer to help people understand the potential to get tax credits and enroll in healthcare plans depending on their situation. Neither requires much training.
Tell people who might benefit from these services to learn more about legal services organizations in their communities. Most of the services described here are available anywhere.
Advocate for giving people access to what wealthy people take for granted, so they can be more productive and help themselves instead of resorting to homelessness, crime, and social programs that all place a weight on society
Wages that allow them to afford their homes and pay their bills
Affordable housing, potentially converting office space to apartments
Healthcare benefits and lower healthcare costs
Better child support, so people can spend more time working and make ends meet by not being burdened with additional child care costs
We have to stop blaming victims of a society in which wages and benefits have stagnated over the last 40 years while costs of living have gone up.
Forcing people to rely on the courts to obtain a basic standard of living is not the American Way.
This post is based on a conversation with Jim Barrett, the Executive Director of Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, North Carolina. It provides legal assistance and advocacy to help low-income people in Western North Carolina meet their basic needs and improve their lives, e.g. how to take advantage of tax credits, find health care coverage, and domestic abuse services.