One of my friends is a doctor who treats patients with HIV/AIDS at an inner-city hospital in Minneapolis. Years ago he told me one of the biggest challenges about his job is getting his patients to take their medicine. HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence. You can live a long life if you take your medicine. But many of his patients are living in poverty, and keeping up with their prescriptions takes a back seat to everything else going on in their lives. If they miss a pill, they still feel fine, but if they miss an appointment at the social security office, they won’t eat, and getting there means taking public transportation, which requires money, which they don’t have, and finding someone to take care of the kids while they are gone, and so on.
Everything is harder when you’re poor. There are mountains of necessary bullshit to deal with, and doing something that will keep you alive for years seems low-priority when you aren’t sure how you’ll make it to next week.
That’s from an article in the New Republic citing this study (and others) on the influence of poverty on planning for the future. The point when it comes to clients is that what seems critically important to you, like taking life-saving medicine or preparing for a court hearing, may not feel so important to the impoverished person you are trying to help. They’ve got a lot of bullshit to deal with between now and that deposition next month. The obvious-to-you goal of winning the case might not actually be the best outcome for your client. Often, they just want the problem to go away, and that probably doesn’t mean a long, drawn-out process with a win at the end.
I used to volunteer at a free legal clinic to help people who were dealing with debt collection. Many of them had FDCPA claims and could have sued the debt collector for at least $1,000. The debt collector would even have had to pay their attorney’s fees. I would often refer them to a consumer lawyer or offer to help them if they called me. Very few followed through. I had a hard time getting my head around that. $1,000 (sometimes substantially more) was real money to them, and all they had to do was call. Why couldn’t they? The same reason so many structured settlements are sold for a song: future money doesn’t help you deal with today’s problems.
When you represent impoverished clients, you need to think differently about your role and their priorities. You need to take extra time to make sure you understand what a good outcome would be to your client. And always keep in mind that people in poverty have a ton of bullshit to deal with every day. You might need to put in a little extra effort to make sure you and your client get to that outcome.
Featured image: “Empty piggy bank” from Shutterstock.