Dan Lesser is director for economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, where he has worked on public benefits issues since joining the Shriver Center in 1996. His most recent Review article, coauthored by Deanne Millison, is An Emerging Issue in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Should Participants Be Subject to New Identification Requirements? in the November–December 2011 issue. Dan is also the principal organizer and coach of the Shriver Center’s two-time champion softball team, the Advo-Cats. Every spring he can be found charming and cajoling staff members to get in touch with their inner jocks and join the team.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
Getting legislation passed in Illinois in spring 2009 that included a number of measures to expand families’ access to the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. This legislation had the desired effect: it changed the dynamic at the front door and opened up the program just when more people needed assistance due to the recession and the jobless recovery. Since the bill passed, the number of families served in our TANF program has nearly doubled. Working with our coalition partners and bill sponsor to get the General Assembly to pass the legislation and the governor to sign it was a wild ride.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing particular anxiety? Why?
The case that caused the most anxiety was Caro v. Blagojevich, in which we represented a class of parents threatened with losing their eligibility for medical assistance. The anxiety stemmed from the fact that the party on whose side we intervened was Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The governor had expanded the FamilyCare program without legislative authorization; under the program parents whose children received medical assistance also were covered. The legislature tried to block the governor’s action. Being his signal (and single) policy accomplishment, even Blago took some personal interest in the course of the litigation, which resulted in some litigation meetings that were in truth more bizarre than anxiety-producing. But at the end of a convoluted and tortured process, FamilyCare survived.
As the primary Shriver Center attorney who works on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program, what do you think most hinders poor people in accessing nutritious food?
It’s hard to identify one predominant factor. What hinders all of us? There’s the temptation of eating nonnutritious food because it tastes good, is often cheaper, and doesn’t take as long to prepare. Other factors, such as the higher cost of nutritious food and the lack of ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods, make it more difficult for poor people to access nutritious food than it is for others. More nutrition education would help, too.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
When I go to a movie theater, I like to buy popcorn and finish eating it before the previews are over (a girl once broke up with me for doing this). Our local theater has free refills, so now I can indulge my guilty pleasure without repercussions.
There’s the temptation of eating nonnutritious food because it tastes good, is often cheaper, and doesn’t take as long to prepare.
No doubt you’re looking forward to another great season for the Advo-Cats, the Shriver Center’s softball team. What does softball teach about advocacy? Or advocacy about softball?
The Advo-Cats are the Shriver Center’s long-standing entry in the Chicago Nonprofit Softball League. In a way softball is more like going to court than like policy work because you can identify who is making the decisions—the umpire—and have a direct conversation with him or her. With policy work you’re continually in the dark. There’s an old saying in baseball that nice guys finish last. That’s true too often in advocacy as well. I guess the lesson is that we need to stop being too nice.
You can read more about Dan Lesser on his bio page.