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Why we need ACORN

The group, once a top anti-poverty organization, fought to empower those whose interests and needs get short shrift.

April 22, 2010|Frances Fox Piven and Lorraine C. Minnite

This is a eulogy for ACORN as we knew it. Our premier anti-poverty organization has been forced into a massive reorganization, and its future is unclear. If we care about democracy, we should study the story of what happened to ACORN, or the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It is true that in its rush to recruit people and build its organization, ACORN was sometimes sloppy and should have supervised its people more closely. But those faults could have been corrected and ACORN's singular contributions to our polity sustained.

More than any other national organization, ACORN succeeded in bringing the voices of the poor into domestic politics. The group had its roots in the welfare rights movement of the mid-1960s, when impoverished Americans joined together to demand benefits they were entitled to but often denied. By 1966, these small local groups had banded together to become the National Welfare Rights Organization. Their campaign attracted young activists who called themselves community organizers, and in 1970 the movement gave birth to ACORN, which set out to organize a broader swath of low-income Americans.

Sarah Palin and her ilk mock the term "community organizer" because they are blind to the vision of an inclusive democracy that lies behind it. The community organizers at ACORN were deeply committed to expanding our democracy to include people whose interests and needs otherwise get short shrift. They were highly effective in reaching out to people in poor and working-class neighborhoods, identifying their concerns and fashioning strategies to resolve them. Their small victories built community organizations, ultimately making the group a force not only in local politics but in state and national politics as well. ACORN held a profoundly optimistic view of democratic possibility in America, and those who ridicule that vision do our country a serious disservice.

ACORN's most extreme critics have attacked the group as a tool of some Marxist cabal intent on overthrowing American democracy. There is irony in this. ACORN's campaigns were inspired by nothing so much as faith in the potential of American democracy. As far back as 1972, ACORN's neighborhood organizations in Arkansas campaigned for more parks and better schools, for fair distribution of community development funds and for an end to racially discriminatory real estate practices. And through it all, the group registered voters as part of a goal to increase participation in government by low-income citizens.

The political climate of the Reagan era was hostile to an organization devoted to building power among working and poor people. ACORN nevertheless persevered, launching campaigns against predatory lending and for low-cost housing, environmental justice, a living wage and school reform.

One study by an independent analyst put the monetary value of legislative and other victories won by ACORN in behalf of its constituents at $1.5 billion a year between 1995 and 2005. Meanwhile, ACORN campaigns nurtured an amazing cadre of proud local leaders, most of them African American women.

In 2004, in the battleground state of Florida, ACORN developed a strategy to increase the electoral participation of poor Floridians by helping put a referendum on the ballot to raise the state's minimum wage, which at the time was $5.15 an hour. Organizers hoped the lure of a ballot referendum to raise wages would mobilize more liberal voters, who would also then cast a vote in the presidential race. In the end, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 381,000 votes in Florida, but 3.1 million voters, or 71% of the electorate, voted for the minimum-wage increase.

ACORN's success in the Florida minimum-wage fight came at a cost. Conservatives and business leaders who opposed the initiative took aim at the organization in hopes of discrediting a political enemy. An alleged whistle-blower claimed knowledge of an ACORN conspiracy to fraudulently register voters; a major Republican law firm with ties to the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests launched lawsuits; and government investigations ensued. But while there were lapses on the part of some of the people ACORN paid to register voters, the organization was not found to have deliberately done anything wrong.

Having Barack Obama in office does not negate the need for an organization like ACORN. A progressive president needs a mobilized base, and ACORN knew how to mobilize a base. Today, the circumstances of low-income Americans are worsening, and public policies or their absence are a large part of the reason. As in the Depression, and again in the 1960s, we once more need wide-scale protest movements to save American democracy. It's a shame ACORN won't be around to help organize them.

Frances Fox Piven is on the political science and sociology faculty at the Graduate Center of City University of New York.  Lorraine C. Minnite is the author of "The Myth of Voter Fraud."

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