Rebecca Vallas is the director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress (CAP), where she plays a leading role in antipoverty policy development and analysis, with a particular focus on strengthening income security programs. Before joining CAP, Vallas served as the deputy director of government affairs at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. Prior to that, Vallas worked as a legal aid attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia, where she was a Skadden Fellow and a Borchard Fellow in Law & Aging. She has coauthored two articles for Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. Vallas received her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law and her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Emory University.
You’ve been involved in some exciting new endeavors to connect poverty issues to the broader public. I’m thinking of TalkPoverty.org and the new series on SiriusXM radio. What results do you hope to see from these initiatives?
People who know me won't be surprised that joining CAP's poverty team has been like being a kid in a candy store. My colleague Greg Kaufmann, formerly the poverty correspondent at The Nation, launched TalkPoverty.org to be a hub of news and discussion for the antipoverty community—and it has been equal parts fun and inspiring to be involved. Part of what makes it so special is that the blog is structured as a place for people from all walks of the antipoverty community—advocates, service providers, policymakers, elected officials, journalists, and most importantly people struggling to make ends meet—to give voice to their ideas, hopes, successes, and challenges and to connect with a much broader community than they might otherwise reach. It's been an opportunity to break down silos and to cause worlds to collide. For example, TalkPoverty recently hosted "criminal justice reform week," running some 10 columns highlighting the intersection of over-criminalization and poverty and in the process merging the criminal justice world and the antipoverty world in a way that doesn't often happen. (Shameless plug: Many of the best TalkPoverty posts have come from legal services lawyers.)
"Access to representation" has supplanted the bolder vision of law reform and systemic change.
With TalkPoverty Radio, we're really excited to take the experience of the blog to the next level. I'm not aware of another radio show that has been dedicated solely to discussing poverty, so just the opportunity is in many ways a dream come true. It's been an incredible experience bringing together so many of my heroes—from Melissa Harris Perry to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to Linda Tirado, who wrote the amazing essay on the experience of poverty that went viral in 2013 and which she's recently turned into an incredible book—through interviews and panel discussions for what will be a six-week miniseries (kind of like Serial for poverty). It launches Saturday, January 17, at noon EST.
You began your career at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. How does your past legal services practice inform your current policy work?
I will always be a legal services lawyer at heart. CLS is very much where I grew up, both personally and professionally, and the experience of working directly with low-income individuals and communities—and learning from some of the best poverty lawyers in the country—continues to serve as the underpinning for my work and how I see the world. I find it difficult to imagine how someone could attempt to tackle antipoverty policy without having worked on the ground with the people who are or would be impacted by the policies you're shaping. My time at CLS also led me to understand legal services as an antipoverty tool—something I'm looking forward to devoting more time to exploring in the coming year.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
In large part due to the restrictions put in place by President Nixon and expanded by President Reagan and Rep. Newt Gingrich, much legal services work today more closely resembles the “legal aid” vision that existed prior to the 1960s rather than the “law reform” vision brought about by the Office of Economic Opportunity as part of the War on Poverty. Today an ever-shrinking number of legal services programs—and legal services attorneys—view their role and mission as that of antipoverty work. "Access to representation" has supplanted the bolder vision of law reform and systemic change. Obviously we need to build public and political support for removing the restrictions. But there's a lot that can be done to change the mind-set and maximize both restricted and unrestricted programs' role as part of the broader antipoverty movement, even without lifting the restrictions.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
1990s reruns of Law and Order. (Shh, don't tell.)
For more from Rebecca Vallas, see:
Rebecca D. Vallas & Elaine Alfano, Children’s SSI Disability Benefits at Risk . . . Again, 46 Clearinghouse Review 61 (May–June 2012).
Rebecca Vallas & Roopal Patel, Sentenced to a Life of Criminal Debt: A Barrier to Reentry and Climbing out of Poverty, 46 Clearinghouse Review 131 (July–Aug. 2012).
Webinar, Trapped: The Effects of Criminal Debt on Reentry (Sept. 12, 2013).