At Upsolve, we believe that many of the most effective nonprofits combine direct services and advocacy in their work.
In the near term, their direct services work allows them to have a concrete impact on the marginalized communities they serve. Direct services work also enables nonprofits to learn about what public policy issues matter to their beneficiaries, develop a grassroots base of supporters affected by a problem, and build unique storytelling skills that are required for effective advocacy. Too often, public policy ideas come from people who are disconnected from the communities they’re trying to serve.
In the long term, advocacy allows nonprofits to enact narrative shifts and policy change that can have long term impact at scale. While technology-driven direct services work shares many traits with public policy – namely, scalability and low marginal costs – we must uproot a broken system to ensure long term change.
In 2016, we started Upsolve as a pure direct services nonprofit. Over the last few years, as we listened to our users, we’ve started to develop a policy platform, driven by their needs. As we grow and learn, our platform will expand and deepen.
Related Link: Upsolve advisor, Hon. Robert Gordon (Bankruptcy Judge from 2006-2020), writes: "Change the Bankruptcy System to Help End Cycle of Poverty" (Law360)
1. Legal Simplification.
Complicated legal forms are modern-day literacy tests. There are many ways to simplify the federal bankruptcy forms through plain language and better design without compromising their substantive complexity.
The main problem is that the bankruptcy forms and process was designed around the assumption that most people would be able to afford a lawyer. This doesn't make sense when bankruptcy is specifically a legal problem you only have when you’re facing severe financial distress. The average Upsolve user has over $50,000 in debt and only a few hundred dollars in total savings. The average bankruptcy lawyer costs over $1,000.
Given that the system is designed around lawyers, it’s not easy for a consumer to figure out what bankruptcy forms they need to complete for a simple Chapter 7 case. The U.S. Courts website requires them to separately print out over a dozen PDFs. When they do print out those PDFs, they must navigate many of the same forms that are used for much more complicated cases filed by business owners, investors, and other so-called "non-consumers" and understand terms like “unsecured nonpriority debt” and “set off.”
Over the last four years, we’ve heard judges and lawyers talk about the high dismissal rate for unrepresented debtors. The government has the power to design simpler, more accessible forms and online experiences that would dramatically decrease these dismissal rates. Upsolve should not need to exist. The federal courts should offer a tool like Upsolve to everyone.
Making rights simpler and easier to access for people who can't afford lawyers should appeal to both conservatives who fight for individual responsibility and liberals who fight for social justice. A simpler legal system is also much cheaper for us to achieve equal protection under the law than providing everyone a free lawyer when they can't afford one.
While we know bankruptcy best, the need for legal simplification applies to most other areas of poverty law. We won't have equal rights as long as it’s impossible for normal people to access their rights without paying fees they can’t afford. Today’s complexity is a civil rights injustice.
Solutions: redesign the bankruptcy forms and process around the assumption that individuals filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy will not be able to afford lawyers; get rid of all Latin in the legal system; mandate a 10th-grade reading level or below on all legal websites, forms, and form instructions; introduce design standards and audits.
2. Reforming the regulations of the legal industry.
There are countless legal problems that don’t require someone to go to three years of law school and pay $100,000+ to be competently trained to provide assistance. But that’s the status quo today. This restricts the supply of help available, drives up the cost of legal assistance, and guarantees that we don’t have equal protection under the law.
These regulations have a particularly pernicious effect on Black and Brown communities. Consider which group of people disproportionately has access to three years and $100,000-plus of graduate school education and which group of people disproportionately cannot afford the legal help they need. Reforming these regulations is a matter of racial justice.
The legal fees we make people pay to access their civil legal rights in bankruptcy, housing, family, and social security disability law resemble poll taxes. If you can’t afford the fees, you can’t afford your civil legal rights.
Fortunately, there’s a movement in America to reform these unjust rules on a state-by-state basis. The Supreme Courts in Arizona and Utah have already taken steps in 2020, and several other states are in the process of enacting change.
Solution: allow vetted professionals to provide legal assistance in commoditized areas of poverty law.
3. Treat student loans like credit card debt in bankruptcy.
For about one-third of Upsolve users, bankruptcy doesn’t serve its intended purpose of providing a fresh start. Americans owe $1.6 trillion in student loans, and Black borrowers have a default rate over 2x the rate of White borrowers, regardless of whether they obtained a bachelor’s, associate, or no degree. The student loan debt crisis is a civil rights issue.
Our number one most requested product from our users at Upsolve is a tool to help our users deal with their student loan debt.
While individuals who file bankruptcy can discharge their student loans by filing a lawsuit against their lender after they file bankruptcy, this process is much more complicated than filing a normal bankruptcy, too expensive for most people to try, and often unsuccessful.
Student loans should be treated like medical bills and credit card debt in bankruptcy. Luckily, this issue has also already received national prominence. Senators have introduced legislation to treat student loans like any other debt in bankruptcy, but nothing has passed.
Over the last few years, we’ve shared our thoughts on a more equitable legal system in articles and podcasts. Our team members have also partnered with institutions like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Access to Justice Center, and the Legal Services Corporation, and TED to educate the general public.
Civil Justice for All Report by the American Academy of Arts and Science
Justice Talk: Upsolve CEO Rohan Pavuluri joins Justice Himonas (Utah) and Justice Timmer (Arizona) to discuss regulatory reform with LSC President Emeritus Jim Sandman
Too Broke for a Fresh Start by Hon. Henry Callaway, federal U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, and Upsolve Board Chair Jonathan Petts
Advocacy requires teamwork. If you or your organization care about any of these issues, please send us an email. We’d love to keep a running list of allies, as we think through how we can push our ideas forward.
If you’re part of the media and you’d like to hear more from us or real Upsolve users about these issues, please reach out.
If you’re a judge, court administrator, or legislator who has an interest in learning more or taking action, we’d love to support you. Please reach out.
You can email Upsolve CEO Rohan Pavuluri at email@example.com.