Why I Do What I Do

The Washington Post recently published an article reporting that for the second year in a row, Atlanta has taken the title of the most unequal city in the United States. A new report by the Brookings Institute shows that the household incomes of the wealthiest households are close to 20 times the incomes of the most impoverished. In Atlanta, this means that the households in the 98th percentile have incomes of more than $288,000 per year, while those in the 20th percentile earn less than $15,000. This means the households that earn more than 98% of the other households in Atlanta make an average of $288,000 per year. These households earn more than 20 times the average yearly incomes of the poorest households.

The existence and continuance of poverty in Atlanta do not come as a shock to many, statisticians or otherwise. Data collected by the Census shows that between 2009 and 2013, 25% of Atlanta residents lived below the poverty line. That’s one quarter of us – one in four. The national percentage of people in poverty during this same time was between 12-15%.

A large factor in poverty is the access to upward mobility or the possibility of moving from a low-income group to a higher income group. This is the concept of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” where hard work and dedication can take an impoverished person to a successful middle or high-income bracket. A 2013 aggregate study by the Equality of Opportunity Project studied the potential for upward mobility of 100 mid-sized to large American cities and found that Atlanta residents who start in the bottom 20% of household income have a 4.5% chance of reaching the top 20%. Out of the 100 cities included in the study, there were only four whose residents were less likely to move up in income brackets than Atlanta residents: Charlotte, NC (4.4%); Fayetteville, NC (3.8%); Columbia, SC. (3.7%); and Memphis, TN (2.8%). This data shows that by and large, no matter how hard a low-income person works, they statistically have a very low chance of moving up in income from where they were born, regardless of what they do to try.

This lack of upward mobility is not represented only in a few southern cities. The study shows that the city with the highest possibility of upward mobility, San Jose, CA, is still only at 12.9%. Overall, statistics show the tragic unlikelihood that hard work and perseverance will allow a low-income person to rise in the economic ranks. This phenomenon means that children of low-income people tend to stay low-income, and their children do the same.

All of these studies and statistics can be daunting to sift through. It’s challenging to take information from an academic journal and apply it to the world that we live in. But this research represents why each of us at Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation is here doing the work that we do. We see the real-life examples of this data, the clients who work full time but still do not make enough money to have the sorts of freedoms that we take for granted.

Clients who were given an electrical bill of hundreds of dollars due to a mechanical problem that their landlord refuses to fix, leading them to be short on rent, which results in their landlord filing an eviction against them.

Clients who are shown a model unit, but upon signing the lease they find an apartment full of mold and pests.

Clients who are trying to escape a domestic violence situation in their home, but do not have enough money to pay both first month’s rent and a security deposit.

Clients who work all the hours they can to support their family, only to find out that their employer refuses to pay them at the end of the month.

Clients who represent themselves at a hearing for a protective order, only to find that their abuser hired an attorney.

Clients who get phone calls and letters from collectors saying that they owe thousands in student loans from a university, but they didn’t even graduate high school.

The common thread through all of these examples is vulnerability. Low-income people are vulnerable in a way that those with means are not. If any of these situations happened to people with means, the solution would be a no-brainer. We would pay both the electric bill and the rent. We would address the landlord about the problems, and we would hire an attorney to write a demand letter and potentially take them to court. We might not struggle to break a lease and pay for moving expenses in order to escape an abusive situation. If our landlord refuses to release us from the lease, we could hire an attorney to advocate for us. We would confront our employers and demand our earnings, and if they refuse, we would hire an attorney to threaten legal action.

We would hire an attorney.

This privilege – access to equal justice – is unavailable to so many in our city and in our country. Poverty often means making tough decisions about where to apply the little money that people have, and paying thousands of dollars for an attorney is an expense that cannot fit into their life. A study by the National Center for State Courts in 2013 found that hourly rates for attorneys range from $150-$375 per hour. With the minimum wage in Georgia currently at $7.25 per hour, full-time workers make $1,160 per month before taxes being taken out. The average cost of a three bedroom apartment outside of the city center is $1,335. Living on minimum wage is a constant balancing act, and with barely enough money to cover rent, the fees associated with a private attorney are out of the question.

This is why I do what I do. The clients that come through our doors are working as hard as they can in a system that works against them. They often work multiple jobs and find ways to make money in creative ways, but it seems like they are always in the hamster wheel. They are one illness away from not being able to pay rent, or childcare, or the electric bill. They are one blown transmission from being unable to get to work. They are one payroll error away from not being able to feed their kids. They are one busted pipe away from having no clothes or furniture. They are one non-law abiding landlord away from being locked out of their house. They are one step away from ruin, always trying to make sure they don’t fall down.

I cannot solve or alleviate poverty myself. I cannot provide a living wage to so many people living under it. I cannot stop an abuser from hurting his partner. I cannot ensure safe, healthy, and secure housing. What I can do is provide a kind ear, a shoulder, and information. I can tell someone about the rights that he has. I can tell someone that she does not deserve to be treated the way that she has been. I can tell someone that the system has failed him. And through my job here, I can be part of the process that gives these people the power of an attorney.

With this power, previously disrespectful and volatile landlords start making repairs to an apartment. With this power, employers pay thousands of dollars in back wages. With this power, a victim of domestic abuse gets an order that finally protects her from her abuser. With this power, huge changes can be made to one vulnerable person’s life.

That’s why I do what I do.



“Some cities are still more unequal than others – an update” Alan Berube, Natalie Holmes. Brookings Institution. March 2015.

“Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility” Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, Nicholas Turner. National Bureau of Economic Research. January 2014.

U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1960 to 2012 Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

“Estimating the Cost of Civil Litigation” Paula Hannaford-Agor, Nicole L. Waters. National Center for State Courts. January 2013.