In Defense of ACORN
For many years the combined forces of the far right and the Republican Party have sought to ruin ACORN, the largest organization of poor and working families in America. Owing to the idiocy of a few ACORN employees, notoriously caught in a videotape "sting" sponsored by a conservative Web site and publicized by Fox News, that campaign has scored significant victories on Capitol Hill and in the media.
Both the Senate and the House have voted over the past few days to curtail any federal funding of ACORN's activities. While that congressional action probably won't destroy the group, whose funding does not mainly depend on government largesse, the ban inflicts severe damage on its reputation.
In the atmosphere of frenzy created by the BigGovernment videos -- which feature a young man and an even younger woman who pretend to be a prostitute and a pimp seeking "advice" from ACORN about starting a teenage brothel -- it is hardly shocking that both Democrats and Republicans would put as much distance as possible between themselves and the sleazy outfit depicted on-screen.
Like so many conservative attacks, the crusade against ACORN has been highly exaggerated and even falsified to create a demonic image that bears little resemblance to the real organization. Working in the nation's poorest places, and hiring the people who live there, ACORN is not immune to the pathologies that can afflict institutions in those communities. As a large nonprofit handling many millions of dollars, it has suffered from mismanagement at the top as well -- although there is nothing unique in that, either.
Yet ACORN's troubles should be considered in the context of a history of honorable service to the dispossessed and impoverished. No doubt it was fun to dupe a few morons into providing tax advice to a "pimp and ho," but what ACORN actually does, every day, is help struggling families with the Earned Income Tax Credit (whose benefits were expanded by both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). And while the idea of getting housing assistance for a brothel was clever, what ACORN really does, every day, is help those same working families avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.
Perhaps the congressional investigation now demanded by some Republican politicians would be a useful exercise, if conducted impartially. A fair investigation might begin to dispel some of the wild mythology promoted by right-wing media outlets.
Among the most popular canards on the right, repeated constantly by conservative pundits and politicians, is that ACORN has been found guilty of engaging in deliberate voter fraud, using federal funds. In reality, ACORN has registered close to 2 million low-income citizens across the country over the past five years -- a laudable record with a very low incidence of fraud of any kind.
Over the past several years, a handful of ACORN employees have admitted falsifying names and signatures on registration cards, in order to boost the pay they received. When ACORN officials discovered those cases, they informed the state authorities and turned in the miscreants. (That was why the Bush Justice Department's blatant attempt to smear ACORN with rushed, election-timed indictments became a national scandal for Republicans rather than Democrats.) The proportion of fraud is infinitesimal. For example, a half-dozen ACORN workers were charged with registration fraud or other election-related crimes in the 2004 election. They had completed fewer than two dozen false registrations -- out of more than a million new voters registered by ACORN during that cycle. The mythology that suggests that thousands or even millions of illegal registrants voted is itself a fraud.
If only the Republicans who have worked up a frenzy over ACORN's alleged crimes were so indignant about real and damaging voter fraud -- such as the amazing case of Young Political Majors, the firm that ran GOP registration efforts in California, Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and elsewhere before the authorities in Orange County, Calif., busted its president, Mark Anthony Jacoby, and sent him to jail last year. He had built a lucrative partisan career by teaching his minions to deceive thousands of voters into registering as Republicans rather than Democrats, among other scams. Of course, the only on-air mention of the Young Political Majors scandal on Fox News was made by blogger Brad Friedman -- and the national media, mainstream and conservative, generally ignored it. They were too busy generating "controversy" over ACORN.
So now the overhyped voting registration tales are metastasizing into wild accusations about ACORN's finances and programs, including claims that the group will receive billions in federal bailout funding and that it is a hotbed of corruption, perhaps even murder. In fact, ACORN affiliates -- those not involved with voter registration -- have received a few million dollars annually in federal funding. The group is not scheduled to receive any bailout money (although working people would probably benefit more from subsidizing ACORN than greasing AIG and Goldman Sachs).
The fans of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck regard ACORN as a criminal enterprise that fosters tax fraud, prostitution, child prostitution and even murder (thanks to a satirical "confession" by an employee filmed surreptitiously in the San Bernardino ACORN office). But ACORN chief organizer and CEO Bertha Lewis swiftly dismissed the employees caught on those videotapes and set about reforming the flawed processes that enabled those individuals to speak for the organization. No overt acts were committed by any of the people caught on those tapes -- and so far nobody has found that any of those theoretical "crimes" ever took place.
To claim that the stupid behavior of a half-dozen employees should discredit a national group with offices in more than 75 cities staffed by many thousands of employees and volunteers is like saying that Mark Sanford or John Ensign have discredited every Republican governor or senator. Indeed, the indignation of the congressional Republicans screaming about ACORN and the phony streetwalker is diluted by the presence of at least two confirmed prostitution clients -- Rep. Ken Calvert and Sen. David Vitter -- in their midst. Neither of those right-wing johns has been even mildly chastised by their moralistic peers. Nobody is cutting off their federal funding.
ACORN has pledged to institute reforms, with the appointment of a distinguished outside panel to oversee that process. Let us hope they succeed. Even now they seem far more likely to improve their performance -- and to be more sincere in their intentions -- than the Washington hypocrites who are trying to destroy them.
© 2009 Salon.com