*This interview is the third and last installment of BPR’s series, The Last Line of Defense: How Expansive Should the US Social Safety Net Be? In it, we are spotlighting differing viewpoints on the efficacy of widening our social safety net, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and the heated debates in Congress over President Biden’s Build Back Better Act.
Julie McCormack is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, co-teaching “The Poverty Law Workshop – a toolkit for addressing inequity and homelessness” and “The Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic Seminar.” She also directs the Safety Net Project at the Law School’s WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC), where she supervises clinical students representing clients in administrative settings, including in Social Security disability, employment, estate planning, consumer, and other benefits issues. In 2019, McCormack founded the LSC CORI Sealing Initiative to provide legal representation to individuals eligible to seal their criminal records. She coordinates LSC’s People’s Law School “Know Your Rights” community legal education workshops and has delivered numerous presentations to national and state wide groups on Access to Justice, Social Security, Safety Net, and disability related issues. McCormack received her BA and LLB from Ollscoil na hEireann, Gaillimh (National University of Ireland Galway, Republic of Ireland).
Sam Kolitch: For young people looking to impact the world around them by helping those in need, public interest lawyering seems like an attractive career option. What initially got you into the field?
Julie McCormack: I grew up in rural Ireland, experienced poverty, and was on welfare. I got the opportunity to go to college—I was the first in my family—and then I went to law school. The public interest lawyering label wasn’t something that I was aware of at the time. When I came to the United States, I only planned to be here for a short period to get volunteer experience in civil legal settings serving low-income clients. It was then that I was introduced to Social Security work (doing my first disability hearing within 2 weeks of starting), which I realized was almost like domestic human rights work. It was a way for me to concretely impact individual lives through structures that already existed while also improving those structures.
I then had the opportunity to move to Harvard Law School and combine teaching with doing public interest work—training law students to provide direct legal representation to folks who wouldn’t otherwise get it (which, by the way, in the Social Security context makes a huge difference since unrepresented applicants are denied over 70 percent of the time, whereas represented applicants win at about the same rate). I really love that mix, and I ultimately realized that I not only wanted to do community-based poverty law but I also wanted to teach and mentor by doing it.
SK: Does Ireland view and treat poverty differently than the United States?
JM: America is as racist as Europe is classist. Although I have been incredibly lucky to have the opportunities I have had, I recognize that many of these opportunities are because of the privileges I have as an educated white person. It’s been staggering to realize just how deeply racist and unfair the institutional structures are here. I came to the United States with this laughably naive view of the workings of a constitutional democracy. The Irish Constitution was modeled on the American Constitution, and I came here thinking that this is the place where it doesn’t matter if you grew up in poverty, that it doesn’t matter if you’re female, that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have money and connections. I thought anyone could make it here, and that’s just not true.
SK: Do any of your client experiences speak to “how deeply racist and unfair the institutional structures” are in this country?
JM: Yes. When I was at my previous job, I had two clients seeking Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. They were both in their mid-50s. One woman was white, and she had a combination of arthritis and a depressive disorder that developed as a result of post-traumatic stress from childhood abuse. She also had a head injury that left her with memory and cognitive issues. My other client was a Black woman who was the same age. She was in a car accident that left her with hip and knee issues. She also had rotator cuff injuries in her shoulders that developed as a result of her work, and she had an anxiety disorder and a lifelong intellectual disability. I thought both of these women presented strong Social Security disability cases, and they were both heard by the same Administrative Law Judge, who I previously had thought of as fair and even-handed. Yet only one of my clients won their case. I think you don’t need me to tell you which one won and which one lost.
If you look at the data from Social Security, you are more likely to be denied benefits if you are Black and female than if you are white and female. And the quality of the medical care that you get is also predicated on your gender and the color of your skin. Black women in particular are not believed when they talk about their physical or their mental symptoms. I’ve seen this pattern, though maybe not quite as starkly, played out over and over again in my Social Security cases.
SK: Thinking more broadly, in what ways do you believe the US social safety net falls short?
JM: I fundamentally disagree with the way the US social safety net is set up. We spend too much money policing it to make sure that folks who don’t “deserve” it don’t get benefits. This leads to so much money that is wasted. And folks who need assistance have to become extraordinarily poor before they’re eligible. This is because the rules are written so that only folks with certain income levels, with certain medical conditions, or very few or non-countable resources get access to social safety net programs—and people have to stay poor to stay on these programs. So instead of making systems that are available for folks to rely on while they recover from adversity and can be used to help them get back on their feet and attain or regain self-sufficiency, we have established systems that keep people down and keep people poor.
The America that I once idealized would be effectuated if we had universal access to affordable healthcare, if we had universal access to daycare and early childhood education, and if we had a universal guaranteed income. Then the notion of meritocracy would make sense. We would really be giving people a level playing field. The expansion of the Child Tax Credit is a small step in the right direction. This and other pandemic responses have made it crystal clear that when there is political will, we can pour money into fixing social problems. So I’m not buying the conservative argument that we can only afford massive tax cuts for the wealthy or subsidies for the airline and oil industries. We can afford to guarantee that children don’t go to bed hungry and can get the care and education they need to be able to support themselves as adults.
SK: One of the most devastating shortcomings of our social safety net has been its inability to address America’s homelessness crisis. How have your experiences at the clinic shaped your perspective on this issue?
JM: When you are homeless, you can die pretty quickly. The average life expectancy of somebody who ends up on the street is significantly lower than housed populations. At the clinic, we can see a person experiencing homelessness over and over again but then all of the sudden we stop seeing them. You might think, “Oh, maybe they’ve moved on, or gotten into housing.” No, they have not. It’s often because they’re dead.
There is a terrific book, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, which is written by Dr. Jim O’Connell (the founding physician of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program). These stories helped me to realize that homelessness can be a death sentence. People without homes get very sick when they’re exposed to the elements and they are very vulnerable to being attacked. They live in conditions that are cold, wet, and miserable. Thus, those who end up on the streets—many of whom already have a combination of physical and mental impairments—are deeply vulnerable to drug and alcohol addiction. As a society, we have tragically accepted that toll of homelessness. Boston’s recent experience with the homeless encampment at Mass. and Cass is a very clear example of how scarcity of treatment and shelter options can snowball into other issues. So we need to reframe how we view homelessness in order to do everything we can to prevent it.
SK: Your answer demonstrates how emotionally taxing your line of work can be. How should aspiring public interest lawyers prepare for that?
JM: That is such a good question. I derive rejuvenation from the work I do, from the clients I work with, and from the colleagues and interns I work with. There is a shared mission at the Legal Services Center [of Harvard Law School]: We will do everything we possibly can to provide holistic legal representation and assistance to individuals who need it. I am energized by helping others, which is why I find mentoring so deeply rewarding. I learn a ton from my encounters with students like you, and the same applies to the law students, social service agency personnel, doctors, and others I encounter through the clinic.
Additionally, I was raised Catholic, continue to be involved with the Church (while recognizing her human failings), and derive significant comfort from faith and motivation from Catholic Social Teaching. Lastly, I am really lucky to have amazing kids and an incredibly supportive partner. I lean on them as much as they lean on me. My husband is also Irish, and we did not have any relatives here when we emigrated to America. So we created a diverse family of friends, and I encourage your readers to do the same because you cannot do this work alone. We are not built to “do justice” by ourselves.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.