Aug 28, 2018

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Jon Asher, Esq.: A Champion of Economic Justice

by | Aug 28, 2018

Colorado Center on Law and Policy will host its annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast on Sept.28. One of the two recipients for our Champions of Economic Justice Award is Jon Asher, Esq., Director of the statewide legal aid program, Colorado Legal Services and a longtime member of CCLP’s Board of Directors.

For some people, navigating the complexities of a court case simply means hiring a lawyer to do the job for them. Unfortunately, someone working a job in the service economy  can hardly afford a $92 court filing fee (the cost of an eviction response) let alone a lawyer.

That’s where organizations like Colorado Legal Services (CLS) come in. This nonprofit works tirelessly to provide individuals with experienced lawyers for free or at a heavily discounted rate to more than 10,000 low-income Coloradans annually. CLS describes its mission as “providing meaningful access to high quality, civil legal services in the pursuit of justice for as many low-income persons and members of vulnerable populations throughout Colorado as possible.”

Starting as a small program with history dating as far back as 90 years, CLS now staffs 13 offices across the state, including rural areas such as Salida, Alamosa, Durango, and La Junta, employing 56 lawyers. One of those lawyers is Jon Asher, Esq., CLS’s long-time Executive Director.

Asher served as the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Metro Denver starting in 1980, until the program consolidated with two other federally funded legal aid programs (Colorado Rural Services and Pikes Peak Arkansas River) in 1999, forming CLS.

His introduction to social justice issues came during his childhood in inner-city Chicago and college years in Cambridge, Mass. “It was the time of the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of discussion about civil rights and racial inequality,” he says. Asher spent two years in a legal aid office in East Cambridge while attending Harvard University Law School. He moved to Colorado in 1971.

“I didn’t know how long I would spend in the field of legal aid,” he reminisces. “Some people spend only a few years and then continue on into other legal sectors.” After spending a few years with Colorado Rural Legal Services in Greeley, Asher ended up staying in the field for nearly five decades.

Edwin Kahn, Esq., co-founder of the Colorado Lawyers Committee and a former board member and co-founder of CCLP, testifies to Asher’s dedication to service.

“I’ve known Jon for over 50 years,” Kahn said. “Since he graduated from law school, he has been dedicated to providing legal services for low-income people. He’s been on the frontlines as a practicing lawyer in Denver and other parts of the state since starting with Colorado Rural Services. He has always been an inspiration to other lawyers and staff with whom he’s worked and has campaigned for private lawyers to contribute to legal services and support legal service programs.”

Creating a mechanism for those without the means to understand and utilize the legal system is Asher’s top priority. “Confronting the legal aspects of income inequality and jobs is more important than ever. We must level the playing field,” Asher said.

What does the current playing field look like? In Asher’s view, economic justice is always impeded when those caught up in a dire situation (for example, victims of domestic violence, wage theft or eviction) do not have the resources they need to navigate the legal system. Leveling the field means equal access to legal representation, regardless of your economic status.

“Economic justice cannot exist when clients are homeless, on the verge of losing their jobs, and are then expected to pay exorbitant amounts to afford a lawyer, or numerous fines and court fees,” Asher explains. “The voices of low-income Coloradans need to be heard. They must have a seat at the (policy) table in order for them to be protected.”

CLS lawyers are a mix of rookie lawyers and seasoned veterans like Asher. “We appreciate both new and veteran lawyers,” he says, stating that the former group brings fresh ideas while the latter has invaluable experience to offer. He says that working for CLS may be challenging, but provides excellent training. “Our lawyers have gone on to become district attorneys, judges, and magistrates,” he says.

As both a Board member of CCLP and a director of a nonprofit legal aid program, Asher has a unique and highly respected role as a pioneer for economic justice across the state.

“Jon was the driving force for the creation of CCLP when Congress banned legal service programs from receiving monies if they were lobbying at the legislature or handling cases unpopular with Congress,” Kahn said. “He was a driving force in picking the original Board of Directors and getting CCLP off the ground. He has been a very thoughtful member of the Board ever since.”

In his speech at the 20th anniversary gathering of CCLP friends and alumni, Asher closed with this sentiment about the organization’s beginnings:

“It was our hope that we could create and sustain the capacity to engage in high-quality research, advocacy and litigation on behalf of low-income and marginalized Coloradans, to protect and advance the health, economic security and wellbeing of low-income Coloradans, to make access to justice more full and more real for those in need. That vision and hope has been made a reality.”

During his busy career with CLS, Asher managed to find the time to serve as acting special counsel to the president of the Legal Services Corp. in Washington, D.C. for the better part of a year. He has also served on the Colorado Access to Justice Commission and chaired the American Bar Association Commission on Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts. The legal community has honored Asher with the Colorado Bar Association (CBA) and the Denver Bar Association’s Awards of Merit as well as the Jacob V. Schaetzel Memorial Awards for outstanding dedication in making legal services available to Coloradans.

In honoring Asher along with Diana Poole (the longtime executive of the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado and the Colorado Lawyer Trust Account Foundation), then CBA president Dick Gast, Esq. said Asher and Poole exemplify “courage, bravery, ingenuity, strength and an unwavering commitment to sacrificing their own personal concerns for the greater good.”

“You can’t think of Colorado Legal Services without thinking of Jon,” said Elisabeth Arenales, Executive Director of CCLP’s Health Care program. “He has spent decades building, nurturing and tending the program to ensure that low-income Coloradans have access to justice through civil legal services. CLS is what it is today because of Jon.”

CCLP looks forward to recognizing Jon Asher for his extraordinary accomplishments on Sept. 28. We hope you can join us by registering for our Pathways event.

-By Duranya Freeman

Recent articles

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 2

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs. Part 2/2.

CCLP’s 2024 legislative wrap-up, part 1

CCLP's 2024 legislative wrap-up focused on expanding access to justice, removing administrative burden, supporting progressive tax and wage policies, preserving affordable communities, and reducing health care costs.


To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.


Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.


Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.


Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.