From 1966 to the late 1970s, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) helped farmworkers unionize, fight for safer workplaces, and create a more just farm economy. Studying CRLA as part of the War on Poverty’s Legal Services Program allows scholars to rethink the parameters of this reform moment, as well as the centrality of rural places to the War on Poverty. Historians have typically seen the War on Poverty as weakened by its focus on culture, not structural inequality. In contrast, CRLA attorneys viewed poverty as a product of the political economy of California agriculture. CRLA linked the provision of legal services with interventions in the workplace as it sought to restructure an unequal system. Unlike other studies of legal services that stress the actions of lawyers, this article illuminates the role of farmworkers and the rural poor as well. It traces the development of CRLA, some of its major cases, its high-profile conflicts with Ronald Reagan, and, ultimately, the declining efficacy of its legal strategy. Nonetheless, CRLA’s work reveals the importance of anti-poverty policy in addressing the farm economy, and the importance of rural struggles to the fate of the War on Poverty.

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