Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Pendulum Swings Back: Poverty Law in the Old and New Curriculum

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

The Pendulum Swings Back: Poverty Law in the Old and New Curriculum

Article excerpt


Poverty law was a creation of the 1960s and in a broad sense, an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. Building on the civil rights movement's strategy of using law to effect social change, poverty lawyers sought to move beyond the civil and political rights agenda that was the movement's hallmark to issues of economic justice. (1)

The trajectory of this legal activism paralleled developments within the populist arm of the civil rights movement during the 1960s, as movement leaders increasingly urged adoption of reforms that would address poverty as well as voting rights and other political inequalities. (2) As early as 1963, civil rights leader John Lewis asked those attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, "What is in [President Kennedy's civil rights bill] that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation?" (3) By 1968, at the time of his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., was working in conjunction with welfare rights activists to systematically expand the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's work on class and economic issues. (4)

Even in this social and political context, however, the speed with which law schools embraced poverty law was astonishing. Until the 1964-1965 school year, the idea of a non-clinical poverty law course was foreign to major American law schools. (5) Just five years later, a 1969 survey revealed that American law schools offered more than two hundred twenty-eight courses, exclusive of internship programs, that touched on poverty in some significant measure. (6)

Once schools began offering the courses, aids for poverty law teaching started to appear. Professor Paul Dodyk of Columbia Law School served as the general editor of the first poverty law casebook, Cases and Materials on Law and Poverty, published by West in 1969. (7) A scant four years later, there was enough new material and sufficient law school demand to support a substantially-revised second edition of the casebook, this time co-edited by Dodyk (who had since left Columbia for private practice) and five Columbia Law School professors. (8) As Professor George Cooper's preface to the new edition stated,

   The mind boggles at the developments which have swept through this
   field in the four brief years since publication of the first
   edition.... In 1969 the subject of "Law and poverty" was more a
   gleam in the authors' eyes than a developed concept. It is now a
   fully recognized subject in law school curricula with two published
   casebooks, and several more casebooks and a treatise forthcoming.

The Dodyk casebook was tailored to a poverty law survey course addressing the major legal issues facing low income people. Indeed, the subject matter covered in the casebook was so broad that no single scholar could master it. Instead, the casebook was composed of in-depth sections on income maintenance, family law, housing, racial discrimination, and consumer protection, each written by a different author. (10)

Yet even in the 1960s, this survey approach to poverty law was in the minority. The list of poverty law courses compiled for the National Conference on the Teaching of Anti-Poverty Law, held at Fordham Law School in 1969, cites thirty-eight survey courses, but many more specialized courses on social legislation, urban problems, juvenile delinquency, family law of the poor, welfare law, and poverty and race. (11) Even courses with such run-of-the-mill titles as "Torts Seminar," "Criminal Law," and "Labor Law" were listed as poverty law courses, presumably because their content included a special focus on the law relating to poor people. (12)

Faced with the wide-ranging concepts of poverty law reflected in these course offerings, Professor Thomas Quinn led off the 1969 conference by posing a question for the law professors in attendance, "[W]hat is poverty law?" (13) Perhaps, he speculated, it is a new subject, like administrative law, that is "scattered" through the curriculum and can benefit from being brought together into one course. …

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