Is the Chattering Class Calling for the Poor to Organize?

ACORN PLATFORMNew Orleans   The darned poor! They are so exasperating! They won’t get jobs, when there are no jobs to be gotten. They won’t simply abandon their children, when there is no daycare they can afford or place to put them. They still want to eat even when they don’t have enough money for food. They won’t get off the streets, just because they don’t have homes. Perhaps worse, some believe that they’ll always be with us.

And, now some in the chattering class are calling for the poor to rise up and organize and do something about this inequality problem that the rich insisted successfully for so many years was the only way to go.

Alec MacGillis, a political reporter for ProPublica, recent author, and former reporter for The Washington Post and The New Republic writing about the paradox of poor areas voting for politicians who want to sock it to ‘em and the Democratic Party’s loss of the white working class, especially in rural areas, asks the question in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “So where does this leave Democrats and anyone seeking to expand and build lasting support for safety-net programs such as Obamacare?”

His answer, so to speak, is a stab in the dark, more a prayer than a wish. He says, “For starters, it means redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs. This is no easy task with the rural poor….Not helping matters in this regard is the decline of local institutions like labor unions….” Then rather than actually spelling out how poor people in general, or in rural areas where it is even harder, are going to get this organizing and mobilizing done, he shifts to his second answer of sorts and that has to do with reducing “…the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst.” He concludes his lengthy piece with the conclusion that, “If fewer people need the safety net to get by, the stigma will fade, and low-income citizens will be more likely to re-engage in their communities – not least by turning out to vote.”

Like I said, he’s clueless and reduced to wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams, but worse, he seems to be blaming the poor for the resentment others might feel about them, and in some convoluted and crazy way saying miraculously if there are less of them needing benefits, then others will hate them less, and then somehow low income folks will come out of the shadows and vote. Unbelievable. The nation has decimated the welfare population since Bill Clinton’s presidency, but now almost twenty years later there’s no fading of resentment, heck, politicians are still targeting the ones that are left and moving on after the working poor and seeing if they can take away their food stamps to boot. Vote, heck, if people mobilize and organize, you better hope they stumble on voting as a program!

Even esteemed sociologist and well-known author, William Junius Wilson seems confused about all of this. Earlier in the Times he was quoted saying, “Unfortunately no one has organized for these poor people. There is not a mobilization of political resources among the poor.” When I first read it, I said, “Right on! Look Professor Wilson is advocating that the poor organize! About fricking time!!” Then I read it more carefully. What does he mean, “…organized FOR these poor people?” Is he thinking about calling Ghostbusters or somebody to go advocate for the poor? Like MacGillis he seems to want to see “redoubling efforts to mobilize the people who benefit from the programs.” Meaning poor people. Wilson wants there to be “a mobilization of political resources among the poor,” but is he blaming the poor for not mobilizing their own “political resources,” like MacGillis was blaming them for calling resentment down upon themselves, or is he asking for someone somehow to get the poor moving, like MacGillis is hoping maybe the Democrats will shake off their doldrums and do?

Hey, don’t get me wrong, these are guys that know better and the times are hard and at least they are trying to say the right thing and calling for organization of the poor, which makes them special and super in my book, even though they both seem hopelessly confused about what that might mean and how it might be done.

Look, I know quite a bit about the ways and means of organizing and mobilizing the poor, and the one thing I can guarantee is that it will NOT reduce resentment and when they start voting and winning, the wrath of the powers that be will be called down upon them and then Wilson, MacGillis, and others like them had better not be in the long chorus line claiming they are asking for the right things just not going about it in the right ways, but they better be in the amen section. In the meantime, they and others who understand there has to be organization of and by the poor, need to put some money and muscle where their mouths are. There are plenty of people ready and able to see the job done, but it takes more than wishes and prayers, hopes and dreams to make it happen. Believe me!

Mobile Phone Remittances Increasing in Africa with Questions Unresolved

mobile-money1New Orleans   The constant risk in reading the business press, and, yes, I’m talking about Rupert Murdock’s Wall Street Journal, is picking a path between the facts, the news, and blatant sales and promotion. That’s especially dangerous because at ACORN we eat up almost any article that pretends to talk about lowering the costs of money transfer remittances for migrant workers and immigrants as if it were an ice cream sundae. Needless to say, I scooped up an article with the headline, “Turning African Phones Into Wallets,” particularly because days ago in a Canada to France to the USA skype conference we had been all over this topic!

First the news. The World Bank, years away from the G-8 commitment to lower all costs of remittances to 5%, is now saying that they believe the cost globally is 8% and in Africa 12%. The facts continue to be that they are hedging their bets on the figures by not including all of the charges, but I’ll get to that. They do offer that remittances to sub-Saharan Africa rose by 2.2% to $32.9 billion in 2014 compared to 2013, doubling the average growth rate globally and projected to hit even higher between 2015 and 2017.

Interestingly, a lot of the transfers are now cross-border transactions between migrant workers in other African countries led by Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya. Seeing that development elsewhere ACORN has been trying to change our strategy in Honduras and Ecuador. In Africa many of the transfers are being enabled by mobile phones, led by MFS Africa a 6 year old South Africa based company. Importantly, a smartphone is not required. 500 million users of cooperating communications companies allow access through a mobile payment account on the cell enabling transfers to the mobile phones of other enrolled customers who can essentially text something like a money order to the receiver’s phone and confirm completion with a PIN number. Pretty straightforward. MFS Africa makes its money, according to the Journal on a 30 cents per transaction charge with the average transfer being $80, which also resonates with ACORN International’s research.

There’s still a devil in Paradise though, which is where the story takes a bad turn into sales and promotion for the businesses and against the workers who are moving money home. There’s no discussion of the charges applied for currency exchange and pickup. The Journal obliquely mentions that MFS Africa gets a taste of the exchange from some communications companies, but it’s silent on how much rip-and-run is there. Same problem with the World Bank figuring.

In a conversation with an interesting startup called that thus far was only transferring money from Kenya and trying to open soon in Ethiopia to channels in the USA and Canada, their representative told me they take no front end charge but make all of their money on the exchange rate, though assuring me they took less than the 5% cap ACORN has been fighting for globally. There are huge, deep-pocketed companies trying to get a slice of migrants’ hard earned wages going home, including MasterCard and other joint ventures, so having no money for marketing makes such small efforts like Wave imperiled, but it also signals that without strong rules and regulations the exchange and after-transfer charges will likely continue to be predatory.

For a change it would be nice if the G-8, the World Bank, and countries around the world, desperate to maximize the money for development and personal investment in communities represented by remittance receivers, actually got ahead of the dark-side of this market, rather than just sitting in the stands and waiting for businesses to flash an applause sign. ACORN Canada is hopeful that it can convert a platform commitment from the Liberals to remittance reforms and caps into reality, given their recent election success, which would break new ground.

In the meantime the best we can hope is that we’re at two steps forward and only one step back, but it’s hard to be certain.

Hell of a Highway, Highway to Hell: I-30 and I-630


A rendering of an expanded I-30 corridor in downtown Little Rock. Credit AHTD

Little Rock     Every once in a while some self-delusion seeps in, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. A couple years ago the Arkansas Times wrote a cover story that essentially was a 35-year later vindication of the huge battles ACORN had fought and led in Little Rock to try to block and modify what was called then the Wilbur Mills Expressway and more recently has become known as I-630. Many observers and opponents were quoted begrudgingly conceding that the points ACORN had made in the early and mid-1970’s about how the expressway would divide the city economically and racially had been borne out despite the concessions we had won in our organizing and legal battles. For a second I might have been lured into thinking, hey, lessons were learned, it’s was all worth it.

But, no, the real lesson of highway construction battles teaches something more along the lines of the need for “eternal vigilance” and the meaning of “permanent war” in organizing. I thought of this often while interviewing Arkansas State Representative Warwick Sabin on Wade’s World. Sabin represents downtown Little Rock and some of its neighborhoods and has come out clearly in opposition to the Arkansas Highway Department’s $700 million proposal to widen I-30 from six to ten lanes. The ever unaccountable highway czars also reminded me of legendary ACORN leader and former Pulaski County elected Justice of the Peace, Bill Whipple’s, often repeated line about the definition of a rationale, as “nothing but a lie in the skin of a reason.” Sabin, the AHD, and many others concede that there needs to be some upgrades to the I-30 bridge going across the Arkansas River, similar to the infrastructure improvement demands of a 50-60 year old system nationally reflected in the half-funded highway bill Congress just passed. The highway team is trying to platform the working consensus on the bridge into a massive highway construction project that starts with widening lanes on I-30, but is almost universally conceded to just be the camel’s nose under the tent triggering a domino effect that would eventually force widening of other highways pushing exurban sprawl northeast toward Cabot and eventually forcing a widening of the I-630 Wilbur Mills from I-30 out west as well. I suggested to Sabin that perhaps the folks in Cabot and beyond should build their own pig trails down here and leave Little Rock out of it.

These mid-20th century ways of looking at urban cores and urban development have been discredited for decades, but here they are again front and center in the 21st century. Sabin made the case earlier and on the radio about the need to listen to the voices of urban planners and to look at alternative systems being developed not just in the San Francisco-Portland-Seattle biosphere, but in neighboring Texas for goodness sakes. The Pandora’s Box of horrors this expansion would cause seems endless: the erosion of riverfront and downtown development of recent years including the city’s biggest tourist attraction, the Clinton Presidential Library, the increased isolation of the eastern part of the city and wider divisions by race and class, the isolation of the newly proposed Tech Center, the accelerated urban sprawl, and the list goes on and on. Meanwhile the feds have passed on participation in the funding and no one in their right mind believes that $700 million reflects a real price. Somehow saving 5 to 8 minutes out of a so-called rush hour that might not be even recognized as a minor delay in a larger city doesn’t seem like a priority outside of the Highway Department’s headquarters and maybe the University of Arkansas Medical Center which for some unfathomable reason thinks it should have its own separate exit off I-630, but sure doesn’t want to pay for it either.

The Mayor of Little Rock has an important voice on this, but he’s not saying yet. Metroplan, the regional planning arm, in their plan has argued for a limit on lanes, so the fight is on there to hold the line. The Highway Department being a highway department in a Southern state, which once defined near absolute power in the 20th century, still operates in the same unaccountable authoritarian with its small team of five appointed czars, so they can also choose to ignore planners, mayors, and everyone else. New gubernatorial appointments come up in 2016 and 2017 which could be battlegrounds, and the mayor’s election in 2018 might also pivot around this issue.

Permanent war? It’s on! No justice, no peace!

Devolution in the North of England

CGeorge Osborne’s northern powerhouse policy has given Greater Manchester a £6bn health and social care budget and powers over transport, police and housing. Photograph: Joel Goodman/PA

George Osborne. Photograph: Joel Goodman/PA

Newcastle    I had ridden by Newcastle before on the train between Edinburgh and London, and mainly looked at the wide river and noted how striking it was in contrast to the old saying that defined a waste of time and effort as being like “bringing coal to Newcastle.” Of course they don’t mine coal anywhere around Newcastle anymore, nor is their steel and other heavy industry. The city center is still grand and looming in a way that Pittsburgh and Detroit speak to immense wealth in the past that is still a work in progress in the present.

Talking to the ACORN organizers in Newcastle their attention was riveted on their first organizing drive in Heaton, low-and-moderate income area which is building momentum toward the launch of the organization in coming weeks. Invariably conversations moved to the problems of getting rental security deposits back despite rules and regulations requiring it, the escalating rent, damp and mold, and the myriad issues burdening tenants all over the United Kingdom finding little action or relief.

The north of England has been the focus of the ruling Conservative Party’s initiatives around devolution. During the Scottish election last year more than 100 city councils had made parallel demands for increased powers along the lines the Party was pledging to Scotland if they rejected independence. Now the Treasury Secretary George Osborne has made a number of proposals starting with an amalgamation in Manchester that outline what they are willing to allow. Newcastle has also made a number of steps to get in the early line for whatever might be possible from devolution.

Osborne’s outline is pretty straightforward. There would be a grand mayor of sorts and representatives from each of the city councils amalgamating into this form of larger or regional government would have a seat on the new council. The new formation would have authority over housing, transportation, planning, and public safety or policing. Roads, schools, and garbage collection would remain with the local councils. Osborne claims he’s willing to make the devolution deal with any metropolitan formation that is willing to agree to such terms and conditions. Bristol has an elected mayor so might be eligible for example.

Given the tension on housing and the general distance of the central government and its resistance to change and isolation from pressure, this has some attraction, and as argued to me in London recently by a former government official, the cities are going to get stuck with cuts and having to defend them anyway, so essentially, they might as well get something out of the deal. Obviously the one key thing they are not getting is the ability to raise more money. They would get the money from Treasury to pay the bills they are handling centrally, but austerity is austerity.

We walked past several large parks after we left the city centre and the soaring soccer stadium crouched over the skyline. Tom Scott, one of ACORN Newcastle’s organizers, made the point that the council had announced that in the next budget there would be no money for parks. He wondered what might happen to them in the future with no maintenance or attention. Pushing the buck down the line doesn’t mean that the pain won’t persist until the screaming and cries are deafening.

Progress on “Living Rent” in Scotland


Edinburgh       In the wake of the Scottish independence vote a bit more than a year ago, a coalition came together that included ACORN Scotland, EPTAG – the Edinburgh Private Tenants’ Action Group, an ACORN affiliate, the Scottish Student Union and others to form what we called the Living Rent Campaign.  The demands were not new, but the energy was high in the wake of the election with hopes that the prospects of some devolution of powers to Scotland might make long fought campaign goals around security of tenure and even rent control winnable.

It was fascinating to see how much progress had been made over the last year as I sat through the weekly Monday night planning meeting of the group with ACORN and EPTAG veteran warhorses Keir Lawson, Jon Black, Liz Ely and some other stalwarts as well as new found comrades from the student movement.   The discussions of petitions, post card campaigns, stalls, and doorknocking were part of a familiar song, but the new verses involved timelines and dates for submissions and testimony before various parliamentary committees, reports of meetings with yet more allies ready to sign up for the campaign, and briefings on meetings at the party congress of the current ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP).  This was heady stuff reflecting a hard and successful year of organizing.

Talking to the organizers, it was clear that for all the progress we were a long way from declaring victory and no matter the new momentum and kinder face of the government, the landlords continued to be well organized and a formidable opposition force on most of our points. The legislation was a long way from a done deal and like so many things in the legislative process, the devil was in the details.  We were focused on four main themes:  affordability, inclusivity for all tenants, flexibility in untenable situations, and security.

Security of tenure is a good case study of the push-and-shove that remains before we can say we have really won.  We believe the “no fault” language is still tenuous and under attack on evictions as well continuation of “hardship” defenses that have been in previous legislation dating back to 1988.  There are hard fights being waged on whether or not an initial six-month period would hold tenants in bad circumstances.  There is a constant tension in our “security” fight on wanting more security in terms of lease periods, but not being trapped in bad leases with recalcitrant landlords unwilling to maintain habitable apartments.

A similar fight is still at issue around rent controls.  Once again like with security “in principle” there is movement, but where our concern is affordability, landlords and some of their parliamentary allies are trying to reposition the controls as “predictability” of rent, even in these times of huge increases.  The compromise has been a discussion of limiting rent increases to the CPI, consumer price increase, plus 1% based on a factor of “N” with the “N” being a number establishing the fair market rate by local jurisdiction.  Our campaign believes that local circumstances are so varied between the red hot market in Aberdeen and even Edinburgh compared to elsewhere that local councils need to be able to set the floor, while others are pushing for a national rate which would make almost no one happy.

In a period of so-called devolution, most organizers are increasingly scoffing at the notion that much of any real power was devolved and in fact in some cases the counterattack on Scotland elsewhere in the United Kingdom may have England setting policies and forcing Scotland by default to have to adapt to them.  Ironically, a year after these concessions were made, in situations like the struggle over affordability embedded in our demands for rent controls, we are left still battling for more devolution into local jurisdictions more responsive to peoples’ needs and peoples’ organizational formations and pressure.

Living rent, like living wages, is not a fight with just one battle but a never ending war, so for ACORN we are in this for the long haul.

Banks are Building “Credit Deserts” in Birmingham and Elsewhere

182984189-465119Edinburgh   We have real deserts like Sahara, the Gobi, Mohave, or Chihuahuan in the world. We have food “deserts” in many lower income communities with little choice but mom-and-pops, corner stores, kiosks, and bodegas to serve millions. Now there’s increasing evidence that banks have been allowed to build “credit deserts” in many cities, and work in Birmingham, the second largest city in the United Kingdom, makes it clear the map of the desert is also the outline of lower income communities in the city.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Reportedly, British banks have shut down 42% of their branches over the last 15 years, and of course a huge percentage of the closures have been in lower income areas. Fleeing from the responsibilities of community banking has long been a trend in the United States of course, but in the United Kingdom the concentration of most banking in a handful of companies exacerbates the crisis. The U.K.’s antitrust regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, recently said that Britain’s retail banking market isn’t competitive enough, but then didn’t do much about it and made no proposals for forcing the country’s big lenders from making any radical changes to their businesses. U.K retail and business banking is dominated by four banks: Lloyds Banking Group , Royal Bank of Scotland Group , Barclays and HSBC Holdings holding approximately 70% of personal current accounts and 80% of business accounts in the U.K.

Now as data is becoming available in recent years on where small businesses, mortgage loans, and smaller consumer loans are being given by banks, the city council of Birmingham did some number crunching, and then laid out the results on a map. In general Birmingham citizens had less access to credit than virtually any other part of the UK, but more specifically when a comparison was made on where loans were NOT being made, the overlap with lower income communities was precise. There is no question that banks are discriminating against low and moderate income families as a matter of policy and as a key part of their business plan.

While the banks build a “credit desert,” the vultures that sweep in to feed on the people are of course the payday lenders and cities in the UK, just like the US and Canada are seeing a feeding frenzy. ACORN organizers not only in Birmingham but in other cities in England and Scotland were quickly able to rattle off the names and addresses of payday lenders, pawn shops, and other quick money spots in our neighborhoods.

While visiting we looked up the regulations on payday lenders in the UK. Not much hope for relief there in the credit desert. Pretty much everything goes if the interest rate on the loans was less than 100% of the loan itself. Checking the popular internet money lender, Wonga, to our shock they boldly displayed an APR or annual percentage rate for their lending rate at 1509%.

The plan seems to be to discriminate in lending and then open the door wide so that the pockets of lower income families can be picked clean.


“Payday Loan Song”by Erich Vieth