The challenging road ahead of us – Updates from MVLS’s Susan Francis

As we begin 2021, we at MVLS are well aware of the long road that lies ahead for our state and our clients due to the coronavirus. With the promise of vaccine distribution on the horizon, little hope exists for the devastating financial crisis currently underway for low-income Marylanders. Paradoxically, with an expected reduction in the COVID-19 infection rates, those struggling the most financially will experience added hardship as foreclosure and eviction moratoriums are lifted and state and federal courts clear backlogs of filings including debt collection and bankruptcy. To put it plainly, MVLS and our clients have a much more challenging road ahead of us. 
While this epidemic has universally created anxiety, heartbreak, and hardship it is important to recognize that the financial devastation of COVID-19 is not being borne equally. Those who were already experiencing financial hardship because of low-wage employment and are disproportionately Black and Brown people are suffering the majority of the consequences of the country’s financial challenges.
Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities from this fall reinforces these racial economic disparities.
  • Not Enough Food. 13% of households didn’t have enough to eat in the past seven days. While those numbers are concerning enough, more Black and Brown families are going hungry; 22% of Black households and 21% of Hispanic versus 9% of White households.
  • Behind on Rent. 1 in 5 renters owe rent, and of those struggling to pay rent, 14% are White, 26% are Hispanic and 29% are Black.
  • Covering Expenses. 36% are struggling to pay usual household expenses, with communities of color experiencing the highest need; Black – 52%, Hispanic – 50%, White – 29%.
  • Unemployment Rates. 53% of jobs lost between February to November were in the lowest-paying industries, which has disproportionately impacted non-white communities. Current unemployment rates – Black – 10.3%, Hispanic – 8.4%, White – 5.9%.
As we seek to find a path forward from the harms of the COVID-19 crisis, we must remember which parts of our society are paying the highest price, both in terms of health outcomes and in financial hardship.
What does this have to do with pro bono legal services?   
As I mentioned in an earlier quarterly email, MVLS clients, because of our country’s long history of structural racism, are disproportionately Black. And these financial hardships being inflicted on communities of color will present themselves as legal issues when they fall behind on bills and are sued by their creditors, putting their wages and any remaining assets at risk of garnishment and seizure. They will come to us as the foreclosure moratoriums are lifted or if this year’s tax sale isn’t cancelled looking for help when they are facing the loss of one of the most stabilizing elements people can own – their homes. We will also get calls from clients when the creditors’ collection efforts become too overwhelming and they look to pursue bankruptcy as a way to make it all stop. Financial hardship and the unraveling of stability impact an individual’s entire life affecting all of the legal areas we provide assistance in – family, housing, consumer, estates and deeds, tax controversy, and expungement.
What lies ahead is daunting. It would be easy to throw up our hands and say it is all too much. But yet, I still remain hopeful. In the coming week, MVLS will be sharing our digital 2020 Annual Report. The annual report includes stories about the impact we were able to have at the beginning of the pandemic through June to the end of our fiscal year. It’s impossible to read these stories and not remain hopeful. Dedicated, committed, and undeterred volunteers and MVLS staff refused to be stopped by a world pandemic. Yes, things had to be done differently, but that only lent itself to innovation and creativity. Despite the many personal and professional challenges so many of us have faced during COVID-19, our collective work to help those experiencing the worst impacts of this epidemic continued. I would encourage you to spend a few minutes reviewing what hope can look like in the form of determined advocates who will not stop lending a critical helping hand to others.
I think most of us are happy to have 2020 behind us and hope for a 2021 that is brighter and better for our world.  But we must remember to focus on our neighbors who are bearing the most brutal weight of this current pandemic and the ensuing challenges that will remain for many months and years to come.  And we must keep offering that helping hand as we have done for the past 40 years Please join us.