Serving the Poorest County in the United States
This is a guest post written by Josh Houy, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellow serving at Access to Justice Inc. Josh provides legal aid services in areas such as Ziebach County, South Dakota, the poorest county in the United States.
Although South Dakota has much to boast about, such as the beautiful Black Hills, abundant wildlife, and crisp fresh air, it is also home to three of the six poorest counties in the nation, including the poorest – Ziebach County. As an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, I have provided legal representation to people who have, literally, sold their blood so that their children could eat.
Many of my clients live in an area where very little, if any, work opportunities exist. In Ziebach County, the unemployment rate is 85% and the median household income is $3,000 – a number far too low to provide a family with adequate and healthy food. A majority of those living on surrounding reservations have diabetes, which is just one of the reasons that life expectancy for them hovers around age 50. In these desperate circumstances, alcoholism is also rampant and sadly, many babies are born with the debilitating affliction, fetal alcohol syndrome.
As part of my fellowship I focus on family law, aiding victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. I’ll admit that there are days when the reality of this work is emotionally draining, but I also recognize the importance of what I do. As an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, I am reminded that part of my job is to do something noble – protect defenseless children and, when I think on those terms, I believe I have the best job in the world.
I had a female client who was referred to me by a local shelter for abused women in Rapid City. She walked into my office with her face covered in bruises. Her husband had been abusive to her since 1990. She decided it was time to get a divorce because she no longer wanted her children witnessing the abuse. Her husband was the sole source of income and she was financially dependent on him. She did not have any money to pay for an attorney. I was committed to helping her. Once my client and her children were able to move in with a friend, I proceeded filing her divorce. After months of negotiations with the husband’s attorney, she was able to divorce her abusive husband. A year later I ran into her at a local gas station where she was working as the assistant manager. She was hopeful that in a year or two she would be promoted to manager, where her salary would be considerably higher than the median in Rapid City. It is rewarding knowing that because of my service, this client was able to not only escape an abusive relationship, but she was also able to become financially independent.
I believe that even though my work is often hard to face, it’s not enough to just acknowledge that you are against poverty and injustice. You have to endure the burn before you spread the light. My life work is to spread the light and I seriously doubt that I would be so inclined had I not taken the challenge of serving as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow.
Statistic taken from Catholic Campaign for Human Development http://www.usccb.org/cchd/povertyusa/povamer.shtml