More than one in seven Americans lives below the poverty line, the highest proportion in nearly two decades, and many cannot afford a lawyer to resolve non-criminal legal problems involving such issues as spousal abuse, eviction, child custody and consumer fraud. Government-financed legal-aid programs have long helped fill the gap, but the weak economy and enormous pressure on state and federal budgets are putting those programs at risk. The Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit that distributes federal funding to civil legal-aid programs nationwide, faces potentially steep budget cuts in Congress, and some conservatives want to end the program altogether. As money for legal-aid programs shrinks, a growing number of poor people are representing themselves in court -- often to their own detriment. Meanwhile, debate continues about whether the nation's 1 million private lawyers should be required to provide free legal help to the poor.