If you thought the New Left was dead in America, think again. Walk through just about any of the nation’s inner cities, and you’re likely to find an office of ACORN, bustling with young people working 12-hour days to “organize the poor” and bring about “social change.” The largest radical group in the country, ACORN has 120,000 dues-paying members, chapters in 700 poor neighborhoods in 50 cities, and 30 years’ experience. It boasts two radio stations, a housing corporation, a law office, and affiliate relationships with a host of trade-union locals. Not only big, it is effective, with some remarkable successes in getting municipalities and state legislatures to enact its radical policy goals into law.
Community organizing among the urban poor has been an honorable American tradition since Jane Addams’s famous Hull House dramatically uplifted the late-nineteenth-century Chicago slums, but ACORN and Addams are on different planets philosophically. Hull House and its many successors emphasized self-empowerment: the poor, they thought, could take control of their lives and communities through education, hard work, and personal responsibility. Not ACORN. It promotes a 1960s-bred agenda of anti-capitalism, central planning, victimology, and government handouts to the poor. As a result, not only does it harm the poor it claims to serve; it is also a serious threat to the urban future.
It is no surprise that ACORN preaches a New Left–inspired gospel, since it grew out of one of the New Left’s silliest and most destructive groups, the National Welfare Rights Organization. In the mid-sixties, founder George Wiley forged an army of tens of thousands of single minority mothers, whom he sent out to disrupt welfare offices through sit-ins and demonstrations demanding an end to the “oppressive” eligibility restrictions that kept down the welfare rolls. His aim: to flood the welfare system with so many clients that it would burst, creating a crisis that, he believed, would force a radical restructuring of America’s unjust capitalist economy.
The flooding succeeded beyond Wiley’s wildest dreams. From 1965 to 1974, the number of single-parent households on welfare soared from 4.3 million to 10.8 million, despite mostly flush economic times. By the early 1970s, one person was on the welfare rolls in New York City for every two working in the city’s private economy. Yet far from sparking a restructuring of American capitalism, this explosion of the welfare rolls only helped to create a culture of family disintegration and dependency in inner-city neighborhoods, with rampant illegitimacy, crime, school failure, drug abuse, non-work, and poverty among a fast-growing underclass.
Even Wiley came to see that cramming millions more single mothers and their kids onto the welfare rolls would not produce the desired socialist utopia. Seeking new worlds to conquer, he sent one of his young lieutenants, Wade Rathke, to Little Rock, Arkansas, to launch a new community-organizing group: ACORN. The new group was to build a broad constituency of low-income and working-class people to agitate for social change.
The little ACORN that Wiley planted in the Arkansas soil flourished. As Rathke expanded it into a national organization, the “A” in its name—Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now—came to stand for “Association of” instead of “Arkansas.” And as it grew, it retained the core assumptions of the old New Left but radically transformed the New Left’s methods to produce something truly original.
ACORN’s bedrock assumption remains the ultra-Left’s familiar anti-capitalist redistributionism. “We are the majority, forged from all the minorities,” reads the group’s “People’s Platform,” whose prose Orwell would have derided as pure commissar-speak. “We will continue our fight . . . until we have shared the wealth, until we have won our freedom . . . . We have nothing to show for the work of our hand, the tax of our labor”—claptrap that not only falsifies the relative comfort of the poor in America but that also is a classic example of chutzpah, given ACORN’s origins in a movement that undermined the work ethic of the poor. But never mind—ACORN claims that it “stands virtually alone in its dedication to organizing the poor and powerless.” It organizes them to push for ever more government control of the economy, as if it had learned no lessons about the free-market magic that made American cities unexampled engines of job creation for more than a century, proliferating opportunity and catapulting millions out of misery.
But look beyond the stale rhetoric, and you’ll see that what is new in ACORN’s approach is its focus on the local rather than the national or the global. It is an ingenious approach, for the political culture of cities tends to be further to the left than the nation’s, making them less resistant to ACORN’s worldview. City legislators and local reporters are often less sophisticated than their national counterparts and have been slow to grasp how radical ACORN’s positions really are. Local urban business communities tend to be disorganized, their members focused on world or national affairs rather than what they take to be the grubby and trivial details of local politics. As a result, ACORN has managed to get enacted into law in city councils proposals that the U.S. Congress would laugh off the stage. ACORN’s strategy seems to be that if, working from the grass roots up, it can persuade enough localities from coast to coast to adopt its programs, the result will add up, in effect, to a national policy.
ACORN has perfected an in-your-face strategy that works effectively at capturing public attention and winning adherents in cities. ACORN’s revival of its Baltimore chapter is a textbook example of this style. Several years ago, a top ACORN organizer, Mitch Klein, injected a new aggressiveness into the Baltimore chapter. Underlings piled garbage in front of City Hall to protest lack of services in poor neighborhoods, wielded huge inflated rubber sharks to disrupt a bankers’ dinner, and—most controversially—staged a profanity-laced protest in front of Mayor Martin O’Malley’s home. “They unloaded a busload of people shouting pretty ugly things and scared the daylights out of my wife and kids,” an angry O’Malley complained. “I thought it was a pretty cruddy thing to do.” Baltimore city council member Lisa Joi Stancil sympathizes with ACORN’s political agenda but is uncomfortable with the group’s aggressive approach. “There are boundaries,” she told the Baltimore Sun, “and they don’t seem to have a problem crossing them.” But ACORN is unapologetic about its tactics. “We’re up in their face,” an ACORN representative enthused. (Despite—or perhaps because of—the intimidation, ACORN still gets $50,000 a year from the city of Baltimore to provide housing counseling to the poor.)
The notoriety ACORN gained from its belligerence boosted donations and swelled its local membership to today’s 2,200. Now the group aims to use this new clout to change the political calculus in Baltimore: it has successfully fought for a change in the city charter, rejiggering city council districts in ways that ACORN activists believe will make it easier for them to gain more control over the body.
ACORN has followed a similar script in Sacramento. The wide publicity it sparked when it took up the cause of hundreds of working-class tenants threatened with eviction by a Japanese real-estate company that sought to sell their apartment buildings brought donations flooding in, enabling ACORN to expand. Now wielding a $300,000 annual budget, it has become a force in the California state capital, where it recently pushed through legislation that makes it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants, for example.
In cities where ACORN has been entrenched for years, its relentless campaigns have forced local policies to the left. In Chicago, for instance, ACORN took on the administration of Mayor Richard Daley over a law to raise the pay of employees in firms doing business with the city. Although the advocacy group initially failed to win approval for its wage bill, which Daley strongly opposed, ACORN pursued the mayor tenaciously, picketing him as he welcomed delegates to the 1996 Democratic national convention and bursting into a closed city council meeting to garner publicity for itself. After three years, it won the bill it sought. ACORN used that victory as a catalyst in Chicago, which has become one of the organization’s most effective chapters. Last year, it successfully expanded the wage law in the city.
But in cities where the political culture already tilts way to the left, ACORN has scored its biggest victories. The group provides public officials in those places with a ready-made agenda and legislation that city councils can use right out of the box, so to speak. In Los Angeles, for instance, ACORN helped write and pass wage legislation just like the measure it imposed upon Chicago, and it succeeded in watering down welfare reform. In New York, when a term-limits law swept into power a new city council, ACORN was ready with a host of bills—from its trademark wage legislation to an anti-predatory-lending measure—that willing council members rushed into law (see “The Council’s Confederacy of Dunces.” )
As these examples make clear, there’s one further crucial respect in which ACORN departs from the old New Left’s playbook. Instead of trying to overturn “the system”—to blow it up, as George Wiley wanted to do—ACORN burrows deep within the system, taking over its power and using its institutions for its own purposes, like a political Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not only has ACORN worked to influence existing city councils and state legislatures; it has also thrown itself into municipal and state elections, claiming to have registered 500,000 new voters in low-income communities around the country. With the labor-union allies it has cultivated, it has even helped create new parties that have scored real successes. Chicago’s ACORN leader, for instance, won a seat on the Board of Aldermen as candidate of the leftist New Party. Similarly, in Little Rock, several ACORN members, including the group’s state chairman, have won election to the Board of Directors (as the city council is called) as members of the New Party, which shares ACORN’s member list, as well as its mantra of “Think locally, act locally,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.
New York houses the most successful of these parties, the Working Families Party, launched and co-chaired by local ACORN chief Bertha Lewis. The far-left party won 80,000 votes statewide in the last presidential election and 100,000 in the last U.S. Senate race—the strongest showing of any third party except for the Conservative Party. Working Families played a key role, too, in the unsuccessful recent Democratic campaigns of Carl McCall for governor and Mark Green for Gotham mayor, with Bertha Lewis organizing Green’s post-primary victory party. One-third of Gotham’s new city councillors ran with Working Families’ endorsement.
As part of its readiness to work within the system, ACORN makes use of the most establishment of mainstream private institutions as allies—everything from leftist charitable foundations, including the Abell and Tides Foundations, which shower it with grants, to mainstream churches and synagogues. For example, during a successful campaign in Los Angeles for its trademark wage legislation, ACORN helped organize Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), a coalition of city congregations whose spiritual leaders tended to see “social justice” as religion’s central message. CLUE promoted the measure among congregants, sent religious delegations to the city council to push for the law, and cast opponents as Egyptians holding the chosen people in bondage. ACORN’s detailed and effective manual for organizers points out that mobilizing the religious community imparts the odor of sanctity to a left-wing social agenda. “Religious involvement highlighted the moral and theological reasons for a Living Wage,” the manual observes. Oppose the agenda, and you seem like part of an unholy alliance.
There’s nothing mainstream about that agenda, of course. ACORN’s specific policy prescriptions offer a job-killing recipe for urban blight and decline. Take, above all, ACORN’s signature “living-wage” legislation, which fully 80 cities have now adopted. This legislation requires that companies doing business with the city must pay their employees a minimum wage that is higher than the national minimum—often as much as one-third higher. The earlier versions of this law embraced only a handful of workers, while the later have included larger and larger numbers, ending with Santa Fe’s ordinance, passed just weeks ago, that covers all workers within the city and will hike the pay of a quarter of the private workforce. Clearly, unlike the old New Left, ACORN is patient, willing to achieve its goals by a thousand modest increments.
You can understand how living-wage legislation might seem reasonable to local legislators, so many of whom have never worked in the private economy. It puts money into the pockets of hardworking low-wage employees at no cost to the city treasury. To oppose it would make you seem like a fat-cat, top-hatted robber baron who relishes the oppression of starving workers. On the other side of the equation, how many city councilmen would understand the thick pile of studies from liberal as well as conservative economists showing conclusively that big hikes in the minimum wage ultimately kill low-wage jobs, as employers replace now-expensive receptionists with newly cost-effective voice-mail systems, say, or pile more duties onto experienced employees instead of hiring additional low-wage beginners? And how many councilmen would understand that increasing the costs of city contractors today will require them to raise the prices they charge the city tomorrow, requiring eventual tax hikes that will drive employers—and jobs—out of town to cheaper locales, isolating the poor who are left behind?
ACORN clearly grasps that reality, however. Accordingly, the group wants to make it much harder for firms and middle-class taxpayers to escape the urban central planner’s grasp. ACORN promotes ideas like “sustainable development,” which would limit the growth of suburbs—so businesses and individuals can’t flee just beyond the city limits so easily—and “regional government,” which would force suburbs to share their tax revenues with cities, so that overburdened middle-class taxpayers can’t vote with their feet against the cities’ ever expanding social-democratic mini-welfare states.
At times, ACORN opts for undisguised authoritarian socialism, as when it proposes that “large companies which desire to leave the community” be forced to obtain “an exit visa from the community board signifying that the company has adequately compensated all its employees and the community at large for losses due to relocation.” How much longer before ACORN calls for exit visas for wealthy or middle-class individuals before they can leave a city? This is the road to serfdom indeed, even though it begins with little steps. The proposal gives a glimpse of the vastness of ACORN’s ambition, despite the seeming modesty of its individual programs. Understanding that ambition, seven state legislatures have passed laws to block municipalities from setting their own minimum wages.
As the living-wage movement demonstrates, the mere fact that a policy initiative claims to be “progressive” doesn’t mean that it actually helps the poor. ACORN’s current stand on welfare reform is almost as dramatic an illustration of that truth as founder George Wiley’s 1960s welfare-rights movement, which so grievously damaged its supposed beneficiaries. The 1996 welfare reform act, with its emphasis on personal responsibility and work, is one of the great social policy successes of recent decades. By bringing hundreds of thousands of former welfare clients into the mainstream economy, it has given them brighter prospects and new self-respect. With the national welfare rolls down by nearly 50 percent, child poverty has also declined, from 20.8 percent to 16.3 percent—rather than risen, as critics had darkly prophesied—and the anxiety levels of the teen children of working ex-welfare mothers have also diminished. You’d think that anyone dedicated to the genuine welfare of the poor would cheer.
Not ACORN. I reminded ACORN’s national executive director Steven Kest of the disasters of the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s, and initially he seemed to acknowledge the failure. “There’s an emerging consensus that for those who can work, it should be encouraged,” he conceded. But, but, but: but work “should come with adequate supports, such as day care and transportation, to get people out of poverty.” But: “We also still believe that, for a lot of people, it’s not right to force them to work. There should be some type of income support for those who still won’t be able to join the work force.” In other words: perpetual dependency.
The biggest “but” of all has been ACORN’s effort to unionize “workfare” workers—welfare recipients who, under the terms of welfare reform, must put in a certain number of hours of work at city agencies in exchange for their benefits. Though it hasn’t gotten everything it wanted, ACORN has successfully agitated for the creation of workfare grievance processes in Los Angeles and New York, and it seeks to expand rights and entitlements on all workfare jobs. All these efforts are subversive of reform: they send exactly the wrong message to welfare recipients, who aren’t really workers bargaining with their employers, after all, but recipients of charity. Encouraging them to resist and resent those who seek to help them, to file grievances against them and to feel victimized by them, undermines workfare’s purpose of teaching discipline and good work habits to people often deficient in such skills, without which it is hard to take advantage of the abundant opportunity that American society offers. There is nothing progressive about such “help.”
But with workfare, as with all aspects of welfare dependency, ACORN has never learned the most important lesson from the failures of 1960s radicalism—that there is a tight connection between irresponsible personal behavior and poverty. One can read hundreds of pages of ACORN pronouncements on the problems of inner-city neighborhoods without finding a word about how single-parent households have helped cause and perpetuate them. I asked executive director Kest if his organization might be missing something in its refusal to address illegitimacy. He shrugged off my question. “We are more focused on irresponsible behavior in the corporate sector,” he responded. “I don’t think [illegitimacy] comes anywhere close to the irresponsible behavior of people running the largest businesses in this country”—as if the oppressiveness of “crime in the suites,” as Jesse Jackson likes to put it, causes, and thus excuses, self-destructive behavior in the streets.
ACORN’s anti-capitalism leads it to deep distrust of capitalism’s central instruments—the banks and other financial institutions that ACORN would class high among those “irresponsible . . . largest businesses.” ACORN loudly campaigns against “predatory lending,” “redlining,” and other forms of presumed abuse by financial institutions that supposedly hinder the minority poor from getting the capital needed for home buying and business start-ups. As an antidote, ACORN has latched on to a 1977 federal law, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which was aimed at ensuring that banks do not discriminate against poor minority communities. Under its rules, banks must go through a costly process of reporting where and to whom they lend money, to show that they don’t discriminate. There are no official penalties for banks that get less than satisfactory ratings from the regulators on this issue. But when banks need approval for mergers or acquisitions, the CRA gives “community groups” the opportunity to lodge complaints against them, alleging suspect lending practices. If there’s even the appearance of discrimination, the regulators may put the bank’s deal on hold.
The discrimination that the CRA sought to cure no longer exists, however. True, back when the now-defunct savings-and-loan industry provided most of the nation’s mortgages at rates capped by law, S&Ls often avoided lending in inner-city neighborhoods, where the risks of default were higher than usual, because they couldn’t charge increased interest to compensate them for the increased risk. But today, lenders can adjust the interest rates they charge borrowers according to the riskiness of the loan, so that they can make a profit by lending in the inner city. Today too, hundreds of individual mortgages are packaged together and sold to investors as “mortgage-backed securities,” whose overall default rate is much easier to predict than the default probability of any individual mortgage. Thanks to these innovations, the capital available to inner-city borrowers is now plentiful. As Emory University finance professor George Benston sums up: “Researchers using the best available data find very little discernible home-mortgage lending discrimination based on area, race, sex or ethnic origin.”
But if the CRA is now unnecessary, ACORN has found a use for it beyond wielding it as a propaganda tool to suggest that “redlining” still exists. ACORN has developed a lucrative niche as an “advisor” to banks seeking regulatory approvals. Thus we have J. P. Morgan & Company, the legatee of the man who once symbolized for many all that was supposedly evil about American capitalism, suddenly donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to ACORN. This act of generosity and civic-mindedness came, interestingly, just as Morgan was asking bank regulators for approval of a merger with Chase Manhattan. Not to be outdone, Chase also decided to grant more than $200,000 to ACORN.
The banks that ACORN has shaken down refuse to discuss their contributions to a political organization that, to put it mildly, is hostile to free enterprise. But one prominent consultant to the financial industry, who preferred to remain anonymous, admits: “The banks know they are being held up, but they are not going to fight over this. They look at it as a cost of doing business.” Some of ACORN’s fellow community activists are even blunter. “ACORN knows that corporate America has no starch in their shorts and, therefore, what they try to do is buy peace from groups that agitate against them,” says Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a community-action group that stresses moral regeneration and individual responsibility rather than government handouts. “The same corporations that pay ransom to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton pay ransom to ACORN.”
Such opportunism fits an ACORN pattern. The group regularly takes actions that appear blatantly self-interested or hypocritical, as if their pure motives and laudable ends might justify less than elevated means. For example, even while pushing for living-wage legislation in California, ACORN was paying its workers less than the existing minimum wage—and arguing when the state sued it that the minimum-wage law infringed its First Amendment free-speech right, since paying workers more would hinder it in spreading its message. So, too, many of the living-wage laws it pushes exempt unionized companies from the legislation—a powerful tool for union-organizing efforts and a valuable gift to the unions that are ACORN’s biggest allies. A similar gift is ACORN’s effort to unionize workfare recipients and thus swell union membership rolls.
This note of self-interest and cronyism with its union allies also creeps in to ACORN’s policies on education, even though at first blush they seem far more sensible than some of its other nostrums. In the Bronx, ACORN organizer Heather Appell, an energetic and appealing recent Vassar graduate, is currently talking to poor parents about taking advantage of the new No Child Left Behind education law that allows children who attend failing public schools to transfer to more successful public schools. “Parents are really stirring on this issue,” Appell enthuses. “Many of these people come here so they can get ahead and provide a decent future for their children and families—so being forced to go to bad schools becomes a huge concern.” Appell sounds like a real education reformer—even a conservative reformer. Doubt it’s talk like this that prompted Bush administration secretary of education Rod Paige to honor ACORN publicly with membership on something called the Urban School Reform Dream Team.
But a closer look at ACORN’s educational policies reveals a militant opposition to the authentic educational reform the urban poor need so desperately. Consider ACORN’s successful effort in 2001 to derail Mayor Giuliani’s proposal to allow Edison Schools Inc.—a for-profit educational firm—to manage five of the lousiest of New York City’s lousy schools. Reasonable people can disagree about Edison’s overall record in turning around bad inner-city schools; based on what I’ve seen of the evidence, I think it has done pretty well. But what is beyond dispute is that Edison has never performed as poorly in a single one of its schools as has Gotham’s Board of Ed in the five schools the mayor proposed for privatization. In those schools, more than 80 percent of the students couldn’t read or do math at grade level. Nothing that Edison might have done could possibly have made them any worse—and might well have improved them.
Yet ACORN used every tactic in its comprehensive playbook to scuttle the Edison plan. It intimidated schools chancellor Harold Levy into letting it print leaflets at city expense, filled with false information about Edison’s record, including the charge that the firm expelled children for poor grades. ACORN obtained from school officials lists of the addresses and phone numbers of parents, whom it then barraged with calls and letters. When Edison reps tried to make their case at public forums in Harlem, ACORN activists shouted them down. For good measure, ACORN staged a noisy demonstration outside Edison’s headquarters, complete with the 12-foot-high inflated rat that is an ugly staple of all union demonstrations in New York against non-unionized companies.
Sadly, ACORN’s bullying tactics won the day, and the parents at all five schools voted against the plan. ACORN’s “victory” certainly didn’t benefit the kids, who were stuck right where they were. So who did profit? ACORN. Little appreciated was the crucial detail that ACORN itself is part of the failed bureaucratic system that any successful privatization program would unsettle. For more than a decade, ACORN has used foundation grants to start up its own New York public schools, something the Board of Ed sometimes allows community-based organizations to do. With warm-sounding names like the Bread and Roses High School, ACORN’s schools are political-indoctrination centers with mediocre academic records. Their curricula abound with “social justice” themes that wouldn’t be out of place at an ACORN community organizers’ training school. Bread and Roses, for example, holds an annual “Why Unions Matter” art project to “teach students how labor unions work and what they do to support social change, economic growth and democratic principles.” The schools have even bused kids to Washington to demonstrate against “tax cuts for the rich.”
In addition to its visceral antipathy to any for-profit entity and its fear that the schools run by Edison might look better to parents than its own schools, ACORN had another ulterior motive for opposing any privatization experiment. ACORN has political ties with teachers’ unions—and they fiercely oppose privatization and vouchers in education, because these reforms might threaten union members’ jobs. It is fitting that leading the anti-Edison campaign was Bertha Lewis, New York ACORN chief and co-chair of the Working Families Party—fast becoming the key vehicle for advancing the political agenda of several of the city’s trade unions. Though ACORN sent hundreds of cadres to demonstrate outside Edison’s headquarters, it has never uttered an unkind word about the teachers’ unions, the main culprit in New York City’s educational failure.
Every recent opinion poll of inner-city parents reveals that the poor quality of the public school system is their Number One concern and that a large majority favor a voucher program to allow their children to opt for private or parochial schools. ACORN tells organizers like Heather Appell to take the pulse of the community; considering this mandate, it’s amazing how adamant ACORN’s leaders are in excluding the options of privatization or vouchers for school improvement.
I spoke to Bertha Lewis about her approach to school improvement. Our polite conversation took a nasty turn when I proposed that ACORN families might benefit by a voucher program for kids in failing schools. She launched into a tirade. Vouchers were just “a hoax to destroy the public schools,” she charged. The voucher movement wasn’t about education, but rather about “race and class.” “This is capitalism at its worst,” she shouted. “You always do it on the backs of the poor. It’s all bullshit, and you know it. I grew up in the ghetto. These vouchers are just a life raft for a few people to get out. It’s another education urban renewal plan. It’s gentrification.”
There may be different approaches to community organizing. But there should also be a community organizers’ version of the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.” ACORN founder George Wiley violated that oath when he used the poor as cannon fodder in a misbegotten scheme to throw the capitalist political economy into crisis. Decades later, ACORN leaders are again violating it when they promote an urban economic agenda that would snuff out economic opportunity, when they seek to derail welfare reform, and when they side with a monopolistic education system and its unionized employees against the right of poor families to send their children to schools that actually work. With friends like these, the urban poor don’t need enemies.