History of the Shriver Center

Sargent ShriverThe Shriver Center began as the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services, part of Sargent Shriver’s original concept for the legal services component of the national War on Poverty in the mid-1960’s. The Clearinghouse functioned as the communications and information hub for the national program, featuring Clearinghouse Review and the poverty law library, which was a vast brief bank fed by practitioners all over the country.

The Clearinghouse functions were funded by the national program and were free to all legal services attorneys. In 1996 Congress eliminated funding for Clearinghouse. Simultaneously, Congress slashed the whole legal services budget by a third, and it enacted restrictions barring any program receiving federal funds from engaging in class actions or administrative and legislative advocacy, seeking or receiving attorneys’ fees from opponents in fee-shifting cases, and participating in advocacy aimed at the then-new federal welfare reform, prisoners’ rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, and immigration. Congress also eliminated funding for all of the other “back up centers”, which were specialists in all the key subject matters that trained and supported the front line programs in those subject matters, conducted broad-based advocacy, and coordinated work across the country on key issues.

Instead of meekly fading away, the Clearinghouse and attorneys from the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago (LAFC), the local federally funded field program, decided to react aggressively and try to sustain the full vision for the work. Lawyers from the LAFC came to the Clearinghouse and established an advocacy program (at first called the “Poverty Law Project”) specifically to provide low income people and communities with the forms of policy and systemic advocacy. The communications programs (Review and brief bank) continued, although publication dropped from twelve issues a year to six.

Sargent Shriver was a strong supporter and quickly grasped and appreciated the effort to perpetuate and practice his ideas for empowering low-income people through legal services.  In 2001, he agreed to allow the Center to use his name and mine his relationships, and he became an enthusiastic advocate for the Center.

By the end of its first decade, the Center’s programs had settled in. In 2011, the Center acquired Boston-based Center for Legal Aid Education, enhancing our ability to train, support, and collaborate with frontline legal aid lawyers working for justice in disenfranchised communities throughout the country.