Margaret Stapleton, ’71, has been at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law since 1996. Her job title—community justice director—expresses the commitment that has guided her career. “I tell law students that the best thing law school can do for you is to give you a kind of allergic reaction to injustice and illegality,” she said. “When something’s not right, you will start to itch. You can ignore that itch and hope it will pass, or you can do something about it—research it, drill down into it with community members, brainstorm with colleagues, and then file a lawsuit or draft a bill. Doing something about it might make your life harder, but I think it also makes it better.”
She started addressing justice issues while in high school on Chicago’s south side, and continued doing so in college and during law school. Her law school summer job working on the recently enacted Medicaid program started her on a path toward becoming a significant voice in local and national discussions about healthcare reform. “One of my most prized possessions is a photo of me with my infant granddaughter sitting on my knee as I watched C-SPAN and saw Congress pass the Affordable Care Act,” she recalled. “The photo was taken by my son. It kind of captures some of the things that matter most in my life.”
From the Law School, she went to Cairo, Illinois, as a staff attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, representing clients in their day-to-day civil rights struggles, and after five years there she became the lead public benefits specialist at the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation in East St. Louis. She returned to Chicago in 1986 as a member of the public benefits team at the Legal Assistance Foundation, and she joined the Shriver Center ten years later.
Among the issues that occupy her today are the ways in which the criminal justice system imposes and reinforces poverty. State courts imposing money bond, fees, and costs over what defendants can afford can start chain reactions of negative economic consequences, she said: “We’re stripping money out of low-income communities, both directly and indirectly. When a person can’t pay up, for example, it’s likely that if someone does provide the funds it will be the defendant’s mother or father, and those are likely to be funds that come out of the family’s rent money, starting a new cycle of problems.”
She has been recognized with awards that include the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Morsch Award, which the foundation describes as “the premier public recognition for longtime legal aid and public interest law attorneys in our community.” She serves on the child support advisory committee and the Medicaid public education committee of the Illinois Department of Health Care and Family Services, and she is a director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, a nonprofit advocacy organization that brings consideration of the needs and viewpoints of low-income men of color into discussions regarding poverty solutions.
“I have had the great privilege of working as an attorney in low-income communities, or on issues that affect those communities, since the day I left law school,” she said. “The highest points for me have come when I could listen to a community’s challenges, be able to say, ‘The law can make this better,’ and then deliver on that promise. I’m thankful to the University of Chicago Law School for helping make it possible for me to do that.”