MacArthur Fellow talks research, goals

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URBANA, Ill. (WAND)- Rebecca Sandefur has studied disparities in access to legal aid for more than a decade.

The Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois has mapped the services available in different states.

“What kinds of service are available to you to help you with a civil justice program are determined almost entirely by where you live,” Sandefur said. “Some states have lots of programs and resources, and some have very few.”

Through her research, Sandefur has learned that cost is only one factor that keeps people from seeking legal help.

“If someone said they have one of these problems (their employer isn’t paying them overtime, they’re two months behind on their rent or their parent has died and the siblings are trying to figure out what to do with the resources left over) we said ‘What kind of problem is that?’” Sandefur explained. “People think about ten percent of their legal problems are legal, and they think 90 percent are other kinds of problems, and the most common way they describe them are ‘bad luck’ and ‘God’s will.’”

Instead of seeking legal help with such issues, Sandefur said people may seek help from friends, family, religious congregations or other groups. While that may be a wise choice in some cases, Sandefur said other cases benefit from legal expertise.

“It’s one thing for me to have a disagreement with you about money I’ve loaned you,” Sandefur said. “For me to have a disagreement with a gigantic national bank about money (it) has loaned me? It has more resources than I do, and those resources include legal experts.”

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced it was awarding Sandefur one of its MacArthur Fellowships, often called the MacArthur “Genius” Awards, which come with $625,000.

“This is a problem at a national scale,” Sandefur said. “You can’t solve that problem for $625,000, but what you can do with that kind of money is use it as seed money to start to think about what would be some big projects that would show ‘here’s a big problem, here’s how it can be solved, let’s demonstrate that we can get traction on this issue.’”

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