In order to break down some of the barriers that impede access to justice, it is imperative to first identify barriers, and then develop possible solutions. There are numerous systemic and socioeconomic barriers faced by marginalized communities. Most recently, I have been working to expand access to justice in rural communities, and many people living in the rural areas that I have served during my summer fellowship happen to be Native American and Alaska Native. I am honored to be working with a team of advocates to ideate solutions to some of the challenges faced by these communities. One of the challenges we have identified is the lack of access to public assistance programs (such as food benefits, heating assistance and healthcare). It seems that many families that qualify for public assistance are not receiving benefits due to untimely delays in processing applications and recertification paperwork; this can have a disparate impact on households in need of some sort of assistance to maintain a sustainable living for themselves and their families.
Why are the delays occurring? Lack of funding can sometimes be an issue for state-funded agencies (the amount of work may sometimes exceed the amount of workers). Nonetheless, the delays in processing public assistance paperwork can be a hardship on low-income households, especially those households with children, elders, and those with disabilities. Many of the rural communities do not have nearby agency offices in their areas. Furthermore, some rural community members do not have access to the internet, cell phone connections, or transportation to travel to the office nearest them. This can create a challenge when attempting to follow-up with agencies in regards to the timely processing of paperwork or conducting scheduled phone interviews. Based on further research, it is clear these untimely delays have become a nationwide issue that disproportionately impact low-income households, especially those living in rural communities and communities of color.
One possible solution to counter the delays is to submit a fair hearing request. This process may seem somewhat simple to a legal advocate. However, due to all of the work rural and tribal offices already have with regard to serving community members, we wanted to simplify the fair hearing request process for them. Along with a supervising attorney’s input, I created a fair hearing request instruction sheet. The instruction sheet lays out timelines (e.g. how long one should wait before submitting a fair hearing request), frequently asked questions (e.g. where to send documents), and even some record-keeping tips (e.g. faxing or emailing paperwork rather than sending via post mail).
Additionally, I have created a simple tracking system. Therefore, representatives and individuals can track the date their application materials were sent in and what course of action was taken thereafter. Throughout my summer fellowship, I will continue to check in with various communities and individuals to see what progress is being made and what additional options are available. In the near future, I can only hope technology will play a role in the timely processing of paperwork that directly correlates with the livelihood of low-income residents and families in need.
“Hunger is not a problem. It is an obscenity. How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”