It wasn’t that long ago that suburbia was considered the bastion of homogenous middle-class life. Diversity of race, religion, ethnicity and economic standing were considered the stuff of cities. But we can no longer make such assumptions. Recent statistics concerning the City of Chicago, its surrounding suburbs, and even specifically Kane County, point in a different direction.
The Heartland Alliance Report of 2011 revealed that the suburbs within the Chicago metropolitan area have eight percent (8%) more households living in poverty than the City itself. Interestingly and unfortunately, the poverty rate in Kane County is even higher, with 10.1% of its population—over 52,000 people—living in poverty.
Despite the flip in poverty vs. wealth percentages from the city to the suburbs, the City of Chicago continues to have more than 36 organizations available to address the legal needs of the poor while the suburbs have but a few. Among those few suburban based organizations is a faith-based, non-profit legal aid clinic named Administer Justice. With its main office in Elgin, Administer Justice serves mainly Kane County. In 2013, Administer Justice served 2,819 clients through appointments, coaching and pro bono representation. It served an additional 3,480 individuals through seminars and workshops. Even more—over 17,022 impoverished individuals—were educated on legal issues through outreach events. Of those served, nearly half (47%) considered themselves to be Latin American heritage, while 40% called themselves Caucasian, and 9% African American.
The variety of legal issues is as diverse as the backgrounds of those served by Administer Justice. Although legal aid has a reputation of mainly handling family law issues, the statistics gathered by Administer Justice calculate only 40% as family law. Housing comprises 28% of the legal issues and tax controversies with the IRS comprise 19%.
The 19% stated above as the percentage of “tax controversies with the IRS” does not provide a full picture. When you consider the tax consequences inherent in everyday transactions—business and personal—the number of tax issues handled by Administer Justice, through advice and education, would easily put taxes as the number one legal category addressed. Taxes and death, the saying goes, hit us all. Not much diversity there.
Sometimes, however, the tax issues lay hidden within larger issues. Such was the case of the young Hispanic man who was driving uneventfully one evening when he was pulled over by a police officer. Believing he had not violated any traffic laws, this young man, (I’ll call him Joe), was quite surprised. Surprise turned to shock when the officer told him there was a warrant out for his arrest. As Joe tried to make sense of the situation, he pleaded for his innocence. Nonetheless, he was taken to jail. Someone, it turns out, had stolen Joe’s identity and was committing crimes in his name. To make matters worse, Joe began receiving notices from the IRS saying he owed over $16,000 in back taxes.
Joe turned to Administer Justice—not for the criminal issues, but for the tax issue. Administer Justice operates a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) with the help of a government grant and a panel of pro bono attorneys and support volunteers. With the help of an attorney, Joe eventually cut through the IRS red tape and gained freedom from IRS accusations. His tax liability was reduced to zero and his identity restored.
Ivan had a different, but equally common tax problem: the IRS refused to allow a dependent claimed on the federal tax return. In Ivan’s case, the dependent was his son. Ivan (not his real name) was a legal immigrant with one teenage child that he had raised as a single parent since the child’s infancy. Year after year, Ivan claimed his child as a dependent. And year after year, the IRS disallowed his claim. Ivan could not understand the IRS’ refusal. With the help of professionals in his church who spoke the same native tongue, Ivan tried to work with the IRS and gather all the evidence needed. But the IRS has strict evidentiary rules and Ivan could not grasp what was expected of him to prove his case. With Administer Justice’s help, Ivan found a way to gather the evidence. Most of the evidence came by way of signed affidavits from school and church officials, and his various landlords—all of whom remembered him, liked him, and were willing to testify on his behalf. In the end, the IRS stopped its 15% levy on Ivan’s meager wages and instead sent him a refund check for more than $10,000.
Yet even though taxes are a common thread that runs through all our lives, tax problems reflect the diversity of our population and must be advocated on an individual basis. This was certainly the case of the refugee who was denied the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) because he did not have the birth certificates of the family members he claimed as dependents. Not only did he not have birth certificates, but each family member had a different last name. This was a little too confusing—and out of the norm—for the IRS to easily accept. The U.S. Tax Code does not necessarily contemplate a situation where a taxpayer is a refugee from a country where each person’s first and last names are made up at birth, with no tradition of common surnames and no birth certificates issued.
In order to help this refugee family, an Administer Justice attorney filed the case in U.S. Tax Court and lined up experts who would testify about the traditions of the country regarding naming conventions and birth records. Further evidence of familial relationship came via the U.S. State Department paperwork that the refugee received when he entered the country. In light of this evidence, the U.S. Tax Court held that the man properly claimed a dependent relationship with his two family members and therefore allowed him the EITC.
With nearly three thousand individual cases each year—with such diverse issues as guardianship and adoption, to wrongful eviction and identify theft—Administer Justice must rely on a large cadre of attorneys with diverse practice areas, cultural backgrounds and language skills, and availability. Some attorneys regularly take pro bono cases for direct representation; however, this accounts for less than 10% of the cases. Most of our volunteer attorneys give a distinct number of hours per week (or per month or per year) at one of our six clinic locations where we help individuals in a one-time intake session with brief advice and counseling. Others give of their time and talent during special coaching sessions where they help pro se litigants navigate the legal process, set realistic goals, and gather relevant evidence.
In an August 2010 letter to the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, the U.S. Department of Justice stated: “Dispensing justice fairly, efficiently, and accurately is a cornerstone of the judiciary.” Of course we know that this cannot be done unless we acknowledge our differences and recognize the imbalances that work against fairness, efficiency and accuracy. ■