Approximately 46 million people in America live in poverty, struggling to access affordable health care, secure employment, and find housing. Lauren Hansen, ’09, is acutely aware of the burdens of poverty because she lived it—growing up poor in rural, northern California, Hansen knows what it is like to sometimes lack the basic necessities.
Now Hansen is beginning a two-year fellowship with the Public Interest Law Project (PILP). She works as an attorney fellow representing impoverished clients, all of whom lack jobs, housing, and health care they can afford. Her cases are rooted in impact advocacy designed to fix the systemic problems that keep people poor.
“Not having employment, an affordable place to live, and health care are the three biggest barriers to our clients being able to move out of poverty. A lot of misinformation exists about poverty programs and there is a lack of understanding about the problems of the poor,” says Hansen. “I feel like if more people truly understood what it is like to be poor, the conversation would change.”
Hansen’s personal experiences have helped her to connect with her clients who are dealing with problems similar to those that she and her mother faced while Hansen was in high school.
Like many families, Hansen’s family was not always poor. When her mother, a paralegal, saw the need for middle- and lower-income people to have access to low-cost basic legal information, she opened her own business. New businesses can strain family finances, so Hansen helped out as a file clerk. They could not afford to purchase health insurance. When her mom unexpectedly became ill, all of their savings, including the money for Hansen’s college education went to pay hospital bills. They turned to food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid benefits to survive.
“Essentially, we became part of the community my mom was initially trying to help. I do not know what we would have done if we had not had government assistance as a safety net. We could have become homeless. I may have had to drop out of school,” says, Hansen. “Eventually, I became dedicated to helping poor people, and determined that the law is the most effective tool for social change.”
While a student at the UI College of Law, Hansen immersed herself in social justice work. Financial support from the Equal Justice Foundation and the Iowa Law School Foundation allowed her to work both summers in public interest law. After her first year of law school, she worked at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, California, providing direct legal services to clients whose welfare benefits had been discontinued or denied. During her second summer of law school, she did impact advocacy at New York Lawyers’ for the Public Interest in New York City, where she worked on health law, disability rights, environmental justice, and police misconduct.
“Grants made it possible for me to work for free during the summer so I could gain valuable experience in the field. The public interest community hires people who demonstrate commitment,” says Hansen. “You cannot demonstrate commitment if you do not work in the field.”
She also worked as a research assistant for the COL’s Associate Dean Linda McGuire, who had just started the Citizen Lawyer Program. “Working for the Program energized me, provided great experience, and has contributed to my success as a public interest lawyer,” says Hansen. “Dean McGuire is a great mentor.”
After graduating from Iowa Law, Hansen worked for Legal Services of Northern California for three years, where she represented clients in public benefits, housing, and health law before starting her fellowship with the PILP.
“PILP created the fellowship program to train the next generation of poverty lawyers in California,” says Hansen. “I split my time between the housing and public benefits groups—in housing, I do land use and affordable housing; in public benefits, I work to ensure access to a number of different benefits programs including health, welfare, and food stamps.”
With Hansen’s excellent legal education, a career path that has allowed her to gain useful experience, and a personal understanding of poverty, public benefits, and public interest law, she has made an immediate contribution to PILP.
“I am happy to continue my work and look forward to working with the experienced staff at PILP to address the difficult issues that our clients face,” says Hansen.