Welfare, a mainstay of legal services practice, is cutting edge again. Clients need help negotiating a system that devolution, discretion, and privatization have changed radically. Public officials need help in this new environment to “get it right,” so that programs achieve the laudable goals ascribed to them.
Privatization creates special challenges for welfare advocates. New players, ranging from neighborhood nonprofit organizations to churches to multinational corporations, are making decisions that affect clients’ vital interests. New legal issues, ranging from state action to public contracting compliance, can arise. Accountability and transparency, difficult to achieve in the governance of traditional welfare programs, become even more elusive. We urge that legal services programs, in deciding how to allocate their precious resources, undertake advocacy involving welfare privatization or at least consider doing so. We know that many variables, as well as local circumstances, determine legal services priorities. Welfare programs, however, are the safety net of last resort for many clients; absent vigorous advocacy on their behalf, pressures to cut public expenditures and contractors’ special interests may shape these programs’ overarching policies and daily practices, while the voices and rights of legal services clients are ignored.
In this article we review welfare privatization, identify some of the major issues and challenges for the advocacy community, highlight some experiences in particular states, and discuss some of the tools and strategies advocates may wish to use.