ACORN: The Most Cost-Effective Investment the Government (and Foundations) Have Ever Made
To understand the current attacks on ACORN, and the organization itself, we need to go back more than 60 years, to the 1930s and the New Deal, when for the first time, the federal government accepted responsibility for directly helping the non-working poor.
These programs were expanded in the 1940s, but in the 1950s, a backlash erupted against the poor, driven by several factors.
The postwar prosperity dramatically reduced the number of poor families, and an increasing number of black women were added to the welfare rolls, injecting race into the debate.
Meanwhile, a Republican White House mostly left welfare matters to the states.
The myth of welfare recipients as lazy, immoral chiselers began to circulate. States adopted punitive laws to reduce welfare rolls. Special units of welfare departments conducted "midnight raids" to see if the recipients were involved in a relationship with a man, something that would result in a cut-off of benefits. The average grant declined.
In desperation, low-income mothers in dozens of big cities organized for survival. They came together to collectively negotiate not only with welfare offices for benefits, but with utilities to eliminate deposits required from low-income households and with the post office to install locks on mailboxes in apartment houses to prevent the theft of welfare checks.
Several veterans of the civil rights movement worked to bring local welfare-rights organizations together into a national organization.
In June 1966, a coordinated national day of action brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in 16 major cities. Two months later, representatives of 75 local welfare-rights organizations convened in Chicago to create the National Welfare Rights Organization.
Led by George Wiley, a Ph.D. chemist and leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, NWRO was an unusual organization. It was a federation of local groups that coordinated local and national actions. Black women comprised a majority of its leadership.
NWRO's successes led to rapid growth. By 1969, it boasted over 500 chapters with 22,500 dues-paying families.
In the late 1960s, a growing number of people looked to create a broad-based anti-poverty movement, an idea embraced by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Poor People's Campaign, in which NWRO played an important role.
In 1972, when Wiley left NWRO, he told the New York Times, "The welfare-rights movement created a political and economic crisis around the issue of welfare which could have led to reform or repression. What we are witnessing is repression, and we need a broad, organized movement to counter it."
Wiley wanted to use the NWRO model to build a coalition of the working poor, unemployed, seniors and the lower middle class around issues such as national health insurance, consumer rights, housing and tax reform.
After a tragic accident took Wiley's life in 1973, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, created by two former NWRO organizers Wiley had sent to Little Rock, Ark., in 1970, became the primary vehicle for implementing his vision.
Led by Wade Rathke, ACORN had affiliates in 20 cities by 1980. Today, it has about 400,000 low- and moderate-income members in more than 100 cities in 40 states.
ACORN is one of the few grassroots neighborhood organizations capable of wielding power on a national scale.
It is unique in the combination of strategies it uses: organizing, direct action, lawsuits, lobbying and the provision of direct services.
That ACORN is a federation of self-governing locals with a national board comprised largely of poor people seems to both amaze and gall the right.