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Edgar S. Cahn, Legal Reformer in Defense of the Poor, Dies at 86

“I don’t think we’d have seen such a role for lawyers in the War on Poverty if it were not for him,” Peter Edelman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center who worked on Great Society legislation for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, said in an interview.

It was just the first chapter in what would be a life of legal entrepreneurship. Mr. Cahn left the government in 1968 to start the Citizen’s Advocate Center, a research group dedicated to examining social inequities. He was among the first in Washington to shine a light on endemic hunger in America, and to bring attention to the ongoing plight of Native Americans.

He and Ms. Cahn later founded the Antioch School of Law, a branch of Antioch University, the first legal education program to emphasize clinical training: Students learned by doing, sometimes taking on cases during their first few weeks of school.

Later still, in the 1980s, Mr. Cahn developed the concept of time dollars, a system in which people can earn credits through hours of volunteer work, then spend those credits to receive services from other volunteers — a particularly useful solution in economically deprived areas. Today communities across America, and in 40 countries around the world, use some form of time-banking.

“Whenever you had a question about how to reach the poor, how to help the poor, how to empower the poor, how to organize the poor, he was the man to go to,” Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, said in an interview. “There was nobody in the country that had a more transcendently strategic and tactical approach to poverty than he did.”

Edgar Stuart Cahn was born on March 23, 1935, in Manhattan and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. He inherited his interest in social activism from his parents: His father, Edmond Cahn, taught law at New York University and was regarded as one of the leading moral philosophers of his generation; his mother, Lenore (Lebach) Cahn, was a social worker serving older residents in Greenwich Village.

He met Jean Camper as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College. She came from a well-known family of Black civil rights leaders in Baltimore, and the two of them became famous on campus for their social activism — as well as for their status as a biracial couple at a school that, despite its renowned liberalism, was still squeamish about interracial dating.

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