Many people first encountered ACORN when it became a piñata in the wingnuts’ last-ditch attempt to salvage something—anything—for their base during the 2008 elections. But since 1970, when the community organizing group was founded, the organization has accomplished a lengthy and impressive list of victories on behalf of low- and middle-income families. Among its achievements, ACORN has:
- Moved more than 2 million homes into ownership by low-income people in less than 20 years.
- Spearheaded the living wage movement that resulted in raising the hourly pay of some of the lowest-paid workers in more than 140 cities between 1996 and 2006 before going on to win statewide minimum wage increases in several states, such as Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Arizona in the 2006 elections.
- Partnered with H&R Block to reduce predatory fees charged to low-income people who receive rapid anticipation loans, with one such fee reduction resulting in a savings of $200 million for tax filers.
The victories didn’t come easily, and as ACORN founder Wade Rathke describes in Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families, we still have a long way to go before the nation’s wealth gap is reduced.
Long a dynamo in the organizing community, symbiotically tying his work as ACORN’s top organizer with his role as longtime New Orleans-based SEIU Local 100 president, Rathke writes his first book hoping to inspire by example and motivate readers to carry on the fight he thinks—despite all his bruises in battle—is still winnable.
Central to his thesis is the concept of citizen wealth, which he defines as going beyond income to include assets—savings, access to credit and homeownership—because:
Income alone does not guarantee economic security, nor does income by itself define wealth.
With the income from low-wage earners spent on paying the monthly bills, any unplanned expense—like health care costs—can wipe them out. So over the years, ACORN has sought to increase both income and assets like savings and homeownership.
The effort to boost homeownership, of course, while hugely successful, provided fodder for wingnut attack on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) that ACORN spearheaded to minimize redlining by banks and open up credit to low- and middle-income families. The CRA resulted in millions of new low-income homeowners but, as Rathke notes, has become less effective as more mortgage loans originate out of mortgage lending firms untouched by legislation—like the CRA—that covers banks. Rathke writes that only 30 percent of mortgage loans today fall under the CRA.
Increasing homeownership, making work pay and stopping foreclosures and predatory lending have been central to ACORN’s efforts to create citizen wealth. But with one foot in the world of unionism, Rathke long has understood that organizing workers is essential to empowering them to move forward on their own. Yet, analyzing the challenges faced by the traditional union model, Rathke correctly concludes that:
there are alternatives and effective models for building worker organizations, if not unions, and that if we are to create citizen wealth, we need to pursue such alternatives aggressively.
Such an approach means building "mass organizations of workers"
using worker associations that are membership driven and supported by membership dues and that do not depend for their existence or success on recognition by employers, certification by the state or the narrow give-and-take of unequal bartering that passes for much of collective bargaining in modern enterprise.
Rathke calls this "majority unionism," a strategy he says he proposed, without success, to his own union. The "association" model has worked extremely well in some cases: The AFL-CIO community affiliate Working America, whose nearly 3 million members have helped turn congressional districts from red to blue after intense member education and mobilization—is a stand-out example. But Rathke is less impressed with the possibilities of neighborhood associations like Working America than with those that center at the workplace.
He cites a coalition of the AFL-CIO, SEIU and United Food and Commercial Workers that in 2005 created an association of Wal-Mart workers, with 1,000 workers joining at more than 35 stores that year, largely in the Tampa/St. Petersburg areas. Based on the ACORN model—increasing the awareness by low- and middle-income residents about the public benefits to which they are entitled—Rathke believes that
contrary to my friends and colleagues in the Wal-Mart accountability brigade (and I stand second to none of them!), it is not a public subsidy of Wal-Mart when lower-wage Wal-Mart workers get the government benefits they are entitled to. It is an investment in those workers’ path to citizen wealth.
More controversially, Rathke concludes from the high-level of interest by workers at the nation’s most union-hating corporation, that
rather than castigating Wal-Mart because a high percentage of its workers access [publicly-funded benefits like food stamps and Medicaid], we need to encourage and applaud Wal-Mart’s efforts to get its workers (associates) to apply.
There’s lots more in Rathke’s book that provides much fodder for thought, especially some of his recommendations that can easily expand the distribution of already-existing poverty-fighting programs. As Rathke notes, only 7 percent of families received all four of the supports for which they are eligible.
Lots to discuss in our talk this afternoon. Help me welcome Wade Rathke.