CLASP’s Evolution from Public Interest Law Firm to Antipoverty Organization

By Alan Houseman

In 1981, when the CLASP board of trustees decided to transition from being a public interest law firm to an organization focused on poverty and civil rights issues, I was chosen as executive director. I brought 13 years of antipoverty litigation, advocacy skills, and a knowledge of national, state, and local organizations working on poverty and civil rights.  

One of my first decisions was to hire an experienced poverty lawyer and a seasoned civil rights attorney. We decided to focus on such key issues of that time as preserving the Legal Services Corporation (which was then under significant attack by the Reagan Administration), child support, income support programs, and disability rights (then a new area of civil rights work).

In 1984, we refocused our efforts on an area we called family policy, which was a first step on the path to the two-generational work CLASP is so celebrated for today. This included our work on child support and income support programs, and eventually job training, access to and success at community colleges, child care and early education, child welfare, disconnected youth, family leave, and health care. We continued our efforts to preserve and enhance civil legal aid for people with low incomes.

We also developed state-level advocacy programs and expanded our relationships with key national organizations and networks. We created effective working relationships with state, local, and federal officials; organizations assisting officials and governments; and research entities undertaking experimental studies and evidentiary analyses of governmental programs. In making all these changes, the board and I completed CLASP’s evolution from our roots as a public interest law firm to the respected antipoverty organization we’ve become. 

I was asked to reflect on some of my proudest moments at CLASP. Of course, I’m proud of the work Linda Perle and I did to preserve and expand the federal Legal Services program. However, I’m equally proud of our success in increasing low-income families’ access to Head Start, child care, and early education; preserving income support programs as they faced elimination—and, indeed, strengthening them to respond to the Great Recession; moving child support to a family support program; helping position paid family and medical leave as a mainstream issue that’s expanded to many localities; making major improvements in foster care and child welfare; supporting initiatives to help youth who are disconnected from work and school; improving skills training to be more targeted, effective, and connected to career pathways; providing options for states to enact more progressive approaches to programs that support low-income people; helping community colleges more effectively offer students the supports they need to graduate; and developing legal and policy analyses—ultimately adopted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—that enabled some states to reimagine their public assistance programs and alleviate some of the harm that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 would have caused. 

The primary reason we had so much success is because we hired very talented lawyers and policy analysts and gave them freedom and flexibility to become well-known advocates and leaders. In fact, many of these advocates went on to key positions in the Obama Administration (just like some in the early CLASP years had done in the Carter and Clinton Administrations).  I am honored to have worked with so many talented people.

I learned so much at CLASP. First and foremost, I became increasingly more pragmatic about what policies could realistically be enacted and—ultimately—became more of an incrementalist in what could be done to improve the lives of low-income people. Also, I came to realize that progressive social change was a life-long endeavor that took a life-long commitment. I struggled with overcoming the fundamental challenge of how to interest major national foundations in funding and supporting CLASP as a long-term investment that would yield future dividends. And I worked to overcome the incorrect perception that CLASP was a leftist public interest law firm rather than a centrist public policy organization. That misconception presented a significant obstacle both to foundation support and to our effectiveness in policy advocacy before Congress and the administration.

I’m proud of the tremendous accomplishments CLASP has achieved over five decades. I’m also grateful to the countless talented members of the board and staff who cemented our evolution from a trailblazing public interest law firm to one of the leading voices on public policy solutions that work for low-income people.

Click here to learn more about CLASP’s 50th anniversary.