Citizen Wealth

I had mixed feelings last month when Interfaith Worker Justice’s DC office received furniture donations from the ACORN office. While I appreciated the donation of well-used furniture (I’m sure the furniture had been donated to ACORN long before it got to us), I was saddened to be the beneficiary of a sister organization’s demise. ACORN had done more to build citizen wealth for low-income families than any group in the nation. It had registered more low-income voters than any other community organization. It had provided much of the leadership for the living wage movement (thanks especially to Jen Kern). But when the organization was attacked by the right-wing, it was unable to withstand the attacks and not enough of us stood up in its defense.

This was the backdrop to my reading Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families by Wade Rathke, the 40-year organizing veteran and founder of ACORN. Not surprisingly, the book is easy to read and totally engaging. It is written by an organizer. He tells stories. He inspires us. He challenges us.

People of faith are deeply concerned about poverty, hunger and homelessness. We set up soup kitchens and shelters. We preach in churches, synagogues and mosques about caring for our neighbor as ourselves. We lead policy campaigns for expanding the food stamp program, providing health care to poor children, raising the minimum wage and creating jobs for urban youth. In recent years, religious leaders have been standing with workers fighting to recover unpaid wages through workers centers. But what we are doing is not enough.

Building Citizen Wealth provides a framework for thinking in more systematic ways about how we build both income and assets that lead to real economic security for families. Most groups that organize and serve low-income families focus primarily on adding one or two particular supports for families: one organization offers low-income housing assistance; another helps with child care; another (Interfaith Worker Justice, for example) seeks to ensure that workers are paid for all their work. All of these are good initiatives, but Rathke urges us to look at how we connect that work with campaigns that will lead to home ownership, avoid debt traps and take advantage of every possible public support that exists. Middle- and upper-income families take advantage of huge public supports, such as mortgage tax deductions and lower taxes on long-term capital gains. Upper-income families have accountants who help them take advantage of every existing public support, in the form of tax deductions and credits. Low-income families need help taking advantage of all available benefits as well.

As someone who had admired ACORN’s work over the years, I was fascinated to learn more of the “behind the scenes” stories in the book about the organization’s campaigns to fight redlining, pass living wage campaigns and push companies to partner with the organization to serve low-income families. The chapter on stopping foreclosures and predatory lending reads like a novel in light of the collapse of the mortgage industry. Millions of homeowners have lost their homes or will in the near future. Had policymakers listened to ACORN sooner, perhaps the foreclosure crisis could have been averted.

Rathke, despite his 40 years of organizing, is still fresh and innovative. Too often, organizers place a rigid divide between “real” organizing and programs that have social service components. Rathke is pragmatic and open to looking at new ways to both engage people and make sure that the economic lives of people of humble means are improved.

Building Citizen Wealth has prompted me to think about some new things I could do, particularly to engage congregations. If you want to be challenged to do more, and enjoy being challenged along the way, pick up this book.