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How Poverty Studies Informed My Legal Education

By Jake Elijah Struebing, JD Candidate, Yale University School of Law. 

Mr. Struebing graduated from Washington and Lee University (2014) and is currently attending Yale Law School. While at W&L, he earned a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies and performed his Shepherd internship at the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.

When I first learned about the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee, I reacted with measured skepticism. How could the program capture the many manifestations of poverty? Would W&L students even care about studying poverty? In time, I took the introductory course, Poverty 101, during my junior year and found my reservations to be wholly misguided. The course opened my eyes to the study of poverty and social ethics, inspiring me to continue this education in law school.

Jake Struebing (W&L 2014) interned in Camden, NJ, with a U.S. District Judge and the U.S. Probation Office. He is attending Yale University School of Law.

Jake Struebing (W&L 2014) interned in Camden, NJ, with a U.S. District Judge and the U.S. Probation Office. He is attending Yale University School of Law.

I thoroughly enjoyed my poverty-related coursework. An interdisciplinary approach gives students the freedom to build a program of study that fits their individual interests and career goals. The continued expansion of the Consortium also offers the exciting opportunity to further develop the academic and experiential components of the core curriculum—increasing collaboration amongst a wider, more diverse community of students.

I completed an independent study, co-authoring a community-based research project, “Exploring Community Trends in Juvenile Justice,” which examined the need and effectiveness of alternative rehabilitative services for juvenile delinquents in the local school system. This interest in criminal justice, in turn, led to my Shepherd summer internship in Camden, New Jersey—a place that poignantly represents urban poverty in America and its devastating repercussions. Forty-two percent of Camden’s population lives below the poverty line and, as of 2012, the FBI announced Camden was ranked first in per capita violent crime. I shadowed a U.S. District Judge for three weeks, observing criminal proceedings and studying judicial remedies in underprivileged communities. I then served with U.S. Probation for five weeks, assisting with legal release service and developing restitution repayment plans for ex-offenders.

Ultimately, the experience was invaluable and perhaps even life changing. I saw how the role of government in distressed communities can either alleviate or exacerbate the burden of poverty. I met multiple offenders who asked me when the minimum wage was going to be raised and why their job training programs were being cut. In this tough-on-crime age of inflexible sentencing guidelines, making minimum wage is not conducive to paying off $400,000 in restitution and reintegrating back into society. During that summer, I made up my mind to apply to law school rather than pursue policy work after graduation. I realized that courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and law enforcement have an opportunity to make a tangible, positive impact in the lives of others nearly every day—compared to policy work which has no guarantee of success in our divisive political climate.

In Camden, I also learned about the intersection of law, civil rights, and fair housing. That intersection cuts to the heart of the role of government in redeveloping blighted communities remedying past discrimination. My interest eventually led to a capstone project assessing how a judicial remedy to housing discrimination, affirmed by the Supreme Court in Hills v. Gautreaux (1976), provided fair opportunity for low-income tenants by regulating the social determinants of housing through portable market-based vouchers. I argue that low-income housing must not only be affordable, but must also strive for economic and racial integration if the goal is to ultimately reduce poverty.

Since attending law school, I have continued my education in poverty studies. I took a class, “Poverty and Work,” in which we studied the implications of welfare reform and the legal remedies available to the working poor in terms of employment discrimination and labor organization. Yet again, these studies led to another research project which reconsiders how existing civil rights law should accommodate ex-offenders in the labor market. I argue that employers with exclusionary hiring policies must engage in risk management, that is, the evaluation of whether the benefits of hiring an ex-offender are reasonably proportional to the costs.

In sum, my experiences in the study of poverty have only deepened my commitment to the public interest. Whether it was a course on economics and social issues in undergrad or studying how principles of federalism affect distributive justice in law school, I’ve been fashioning an ethical framework for wherever my future career will take me. Indeed, this is the direction I hope to continue: to improve human capability through my future professional and civic efforts.


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