Changing the Landscape for 40 Years: A Brief History of CLASP

September 23, 2010

"Policies are ephemeral but people are not." - Jodie Levin-Epstein

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) has grown and changed tremendously since its inception 40 years ago, yet it has not wavered in its core mission to promote opportunity and justice for all people. With a history distinguished by innovation and talented, dedicated staff, CLASP remains a leading voice in Washington for people not represented by special interests. Watch the brief video below or view the full version to learn about how CLASP continues to make a difference in the lives of low-income people. 


A Period of Momentous Change  

In August 1969, CLASP began as four lawyers energized by the Civil Rights Movement's successes and deeply concerned that decision making in government and traditional legal practice failed to consider important issues and constituencies. At the time, no legal organization entirely dedicated to public interest law within a broad spectrum of areas existed. CLASP filled this void and quickly attracted legal professionals who strongly believed in serving the public and being effective advocates for underrepresented people. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg chaired the new organization's board of directors.

CLASP's early years were, as founder Charles Halpern described, during a period of momentous change. The country was ending a decade defined by the Vietnam War, the oldest Baby Boomers' coming of age, the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs, including health care for poor and elderly people. But the spirit of the country determined that there was still room for and great need of more social change. And there was recognition that the courts and government had a role to play in making society better for all citizens.

 "There was a real sense that old organizations were failing in their missions and something new was needed. There was a kind of electricity," Halpern said. "It was a very fertile time. We were a creative bunch of people, and the time was ripe for change."

CLASP stepped in to be a vehicle for change through legal, and soon after, legislative and regulatory channels. The small organization wielded significant impact with a small staff of talented attorneys and students who participated in the organization's public interest legal clinic-the first of its kind in the nation-which eventually grew from 12 students a year to 55.

Although structured along the lines of well-respected civil rights legal organizations, CLASP focused on a variety of public interest issues.

Within its first few years, CLASP began addressing women's rights, mine health and safety, international affairs, including environmental issues and human rights, and employment.  At the time, the advocacy community devoted little effort to these issues. Today, however, many voices represent these interests due in part to CLASP's pioneering work and its willingness to take on projects for constituencies lacking a strong voice in Washington.

The organization's staff attorneys sought, primarily through litigation, to force the administrative process to take into account the views of citizens and consumers. Landmark court and regulatory decisions came about as a result of this practice, including The Alaskan Pipeline Case, creating a private right of action to enforce the National Environmental Policy Act; Environmental Defense Fund v. Hardin, which allowed consumers to challenge decisions affecting them; and an FCC decision requiring licensees to broadcast substantial information about environmental issues. CLASP also participated in efforts to create a corporate forum to consider employment discrimination, environmental pollution and other symptoms of corporate irresponsibility.

CLASP made a name for itself not only because of its broad scope, but also because its staff was willing and uniquely qualified to give voice to the unrepresented in any field. 

The organization and its leadership were "open to people coming to us and saying ‘I have an idea'," said Joe Onek, who was the second executive director of CLASP and currently chairs its board of directors.

women workingIn 1972, CLASP hired recent law school graduate, Marcia Greenberger, to work full-time on women's issues under its Women's Rights Project. The project worked to ensure federal civil rights agencies fulfilled their legal obligation to enforce anti-discrimination laws, particularly in the areas of education, employment and health.  The project used the courts when necessary as well as other legal avenues to advance equality for women.

"It is amazing to think back on what little protections were in place on a wide range of issues," Greenberger said.  

In 1980, the Women's Rights Project became the National Women's Law Center. Other CLASP alumni have branched off and created successful ventures or headed organizations, including Public Representation at Georgetown Law School, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, the Women's Law Project of Philadelphia, the Media Access Project, the Mental Health Law Project (now the David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health), the Citizens Communication Center, and the Council for Public Interest Law, to name a few.

I don't think any of us will ever be able to know what major crises were averted because CLASP existed," Greenberger said. " [But] because of CLASP, we have better environmental safeguards, safer food, safer workplaces, a better safety net system for those most in need, more equality for women and those who suffer from mental illness, and we have more governmental systems in place  that are more responsive to ordinary citizens."

Adapting to the Times

During the 1980s, the landscape for public interest advocacy changed dramatically. Funding for public interest law became scarce and the federal government turned many programs over to the states. In 1982, under leadership of a new executive director, Alan W. Houseman, CLASP changed its focus from general public interest law to extensive anti-poverty policy, with particular emphasis on child and family poverty and civil legal assistance. This shift reflected a deliberate effort to target resources where they would have the greatest impact.

This transformation was important. Various legislation and legal and regulatory decisions had created an environment in which there was greater opportunity for many than there had been in the 1950s and 1960s. But the legacy of decades-centuries-of inequality required a shift in thinking of how to ensure more people, particularly disadvantaged people, had access to opportunity.

little boyCLASP began work to strengthen civil legal assistance and preserve an effective Legal Services Corporation, the federal program that funds local legal services offices throughout the country.  But CLASP also initiated its advocacy for more comprehensive systems to support families and children, including by improving child support systems, reforming the federal welfare program, expanding child care and early education and improving job training and education programs.

In the 1990s, CLASP continued this work. In addition, during the contentious welfare reform debates of the early 1990s, CLASP was one of the leading voices educating policymakers and the public on why low-income parents need job training , access to work opportunities, child care and other supports to succeed in the workplace and provide for their families. CLASP also was a leading voice in making policy recommendations to improve the child support system. Today, more children receive the financial support they need, thanks in part to CLASP's policy work.  

At the dawn of the new century, CLASP yet again expanded the scope of its policy work. It established a Youth Policy Program to change the nature of the national conversation on disadvantaged youth. Many organizations focus on preventing young people from dropping out in the first place. CLASP's approach is to inform and influence the policy debate regarding creating and strengthening policies to reengage young people who have dropped out of school so that they grow up to be productive, healthy adults.

 "A hallmark of CLASP is that it doesn't look for something flashy or glitzy," said Bob Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "It looks for solid, thoughtful and creative policy ideas and solutions."

CLASP has forged bipartisan relationships, worked with diverse coalitions across its issue areas, partnered with government agencies to create dialogue at the state and federal levels, and set research and outreach agendas for the advocacy community on many critical issues. A key characteristic of CLASP has always been its objective, practical solutions to some of the hardest challenges our nation faces. Policymakers and advocates at the local, state and federal levels respect CLASP's work.  

"It means something when you say you are ‘with CLASP'," said Linda Perle, CLASP director of legal services.


a familyThis country has changed much since 1969. But one thing remains the same: the need continues for voices to advocate for communities not represented by special interests. To be sure, the nation has made substantial progress. More states have early childhood education programs, more children receive financial support from noncustodial parents,  more low-income   workers and youth have access to postsecondary education through community colleges, more people receive needed civil legal assistance, more disadvantaged children receive front-end assistance to prevent child abuse and neglect, and more states and communities are targeting poverty . 

But despite many gains, "the lives of working people are not nearly as good as they should be," said Steve Savner, a former CLASP staff member who now works for the Center for Community Change. 

Since the late 1960s, the gap between rich and poor has widened. The percent of people living in poverty has fluctuated but has never dipped below the low it reached in 1973, and the rate once again is rising. In fact, the current rate of 13.7 percent, the highest it's been in 13 years, is unacceptably high for a rich nation.

As CLASP marks its 40-year anniversary, it remains steadfast in its mission to provide much-needed advocacy for millions of low-income people and their families by promoting policies and programs to strengthen families, create pathways to education and work, and improve the lives of low-income people.

"We will always need organizations that work closely enough with the poor to have a real sense of what matters and what doesn't," said Paula Roberts, a former CLASP staff member. "CLASP has that sense of what's important, the tools to communicate those issues, and the respect to command results. The poor are still largely voiceless. And we know from working across many different administrations that it doesn't matter the political persuasion of the leadership, they still need to hear what the issues are."

CLASP would like to thank the following people for their help in remembering what it has meant to give voice to unrepresented interests and people over the past 40 years:  Marcia Greenberger, Bob Greenstein, Charles Halpern, Jodie Levin-Epstein, Joe Onek, Linda Perle, Paula Roberts and Steve Savner.


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