Civil legal aid services yield a tremendous financial return to society, an often overlooked benefit of investing in poverty law attorneys and programs. Civil legal aid services are severely and chronically underfunded resulting in 86% of the legal needs of low-income individuals going unmet. Demonstrating the value of poverty law services in economic terms is critical to the survival of legal aid programs. The value of legal aid extends well beyond its typical funders, state and federal government and private philanthropy, to include healthcare institutions, educational organizations, and the private business sector.
Recently, Dr. James Teufel, a HELP: MLP public health evaluator and Director of the Public Health program at Mercyhurst University, led a social return on investment research study to better understand the financial impact legal aid services have in the State of Delaware. The analysis was co-authored by Robert Hayman, HELP: MLP co-founder, and Kristofer Gossett, Mercyhurst University Assistant Professor, and funded by the Longwood Foundation.
Study results show that civil legal aid services provided to low-income residents in Delaware between 2013 and 2015 resulted in a significant financial return totaling $149.2 million or a 723% social return on investment. This means that for every one dollar invested in civil legal aid services in Delaware, $7.23 was returned as a societal benefit.
Social return on investment economic benefits include financial gains as well as debt aversion for clients over a period of years. Clients benefit by increasing their financial stability through increased public benefits, obtaining Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income, averting past debts (including medical debt), maintaining employment wages and securing employment, and receiving educational benefits. Additionally, other legal services interventions improve clients’ financial stability including securing safe housing and obtaining access to healthcare services.
Researchers found that clients gained a total of $71,495,199 in resources (personal income, public benefits, housing, healthcare) between 2013 and 2015. An additional $18,922,076 of debt was averted during the same time period.
In addition to studying the purely economic benefits to clients, researchers analyzed the impact that access to justice as well as health effects have on social return on investment. Civil legal aid’s impact on health effects, measured in dollars, amounts to over $14 million for services delivered between 2013 and 2015. Furthermore, the benefit of accessing civil legal aid services amounted to nearly $45 million for the study period.
The work of Dr. Teufel and his colleagues provide important data to help programs better demonstrate their true value to potential funders. We encourage legal aid programs to read Social Return on Investment from Legal Aid Services: A Statewide Analysis to better understand the study methodology and ways programs can replicate similar studies to continue to add to the evidence base demonstrating the value of legal aid programs.