Volume 31

A Systemic Reimagining of Poverty Law

by Victoria M. Esposito

A multitude of legal and administrative systems in America combine to regulate low-income people and to create and perpetuate poverty. Despite this, a literature review shows that poverty law scholarship has not analyzed how these systems interlock with each other and considered their cumulative effects on this population. The earliest poverty law scholarship, as exemplified by Stephen Wexler, was concerned with the practice of law on behalf of low-income individuals. The pioneers of the next wave of scholarship, such as Anthony Alfieri and Lucie White, incorporated postmodern theory into their work and applied it to the attorney-client relationship; however, their writing was still largely practice-based. Critiques of this scholarship were likewise concerned with its practice implications, and the next significant body of poverty law scholarship focused on where it should be situated within the academy. The movement which has come closest to this type of analysis is the ClassCrits, whose stated mission is to deconstruct laws in order to reveal the effects of economic and relational class on our legal systems. However, this school has opted not to focus on poverty in particular, and it has not made the leap to praxis. There is thus no body of work which reviews the cumulative effects of multiple laws on low-income individuals in order to inform and assist practice and policy as well as scholarship.

In this Article, I trace the history of existing poverty law scholarship and discuss the focus of each successive wave of work by considering how it would view the situation of a hypothetical low-income woman. I then argue that the existing scholarship has not considered the cumulative effects of the multiple systems which interact to regulate people living in poverty and that such an analysis is vital to a true understanding of the numerous mechanisms which act to enforce poverty. This approach, which I call Systems of Poverty, differs significantly from prior poverty law scholarship in that it requires a collaborative approach among scholars; while it is fundamentally an analytic and scholarly approach, it is also grounded firmly in the experience of low-income individuals and the attorneys who serve them and has the potential to marry theory and practice in a way that prior work has not.

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