Are Peoples’ Services a Prelude to Peoples’ Empowerment for the Poor?

ACORN International Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Foreclosure Health Care International Labor Organizing Organizers Forum

IMG_1794Managua         The Organizer’s Forum in Nicaragua will start with a bang on its first full day with a meeting with the head of the informal workers’ union followed by a visit with a representative of the Nicaraguan cooperative movement. Waking up early it was still sprinkling after more than a dozen hours of intermittently hard and soft rain, but now at dawn the sun is breaking through the clouds. A hummingbird is buzzing around the birds of paradise blooms, the heat and humidity have not ginned up yet, and for a minute the internet is working. I was able to reach over the bar and make myself so hot water so with my Fair Grinds coffee and chicory blend and a portable French press, I’m having myself a morning before the deluge of the week.

Reading the papers on the internet and thinking about the contradictions of the Nicaraguan revolution and the questions already forming after having read several books to refresh and deepen my memory of those times, including Steven Kinzer’s contemporary classic, Blood of Brothers, Father Joe Mulligan’s The Nicaraguan Church and the Revolution, who we knew from his earlier time in Detroit, and a New Yorker piece on plans for a possible canal to compete with Panama written earlier this year, I found myself conflating both home and abroad. In the standard playbook of government and power to gain and hold the support of the poor, the government has to provide services, but are providing some level of services a prerequisite to being able to create the preconditions for empowerment?

Reading the papers, two items were troubling. One of course centers on the challenges looming with the coming renewal and enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act. The renewal notices are coming soon to offer automatic enrollment, but as easy as it seems, customers won’t necessarily know if the cost will be the same or if their circumstances on wages and income will give them the same deal. How many will renew as a default under this kind of “choice architecture?” A ton, I would imagine, especially given that the 30-day re-enrollment window between November 15 and December 15th doesn’t give anyone the luxury for shopping much less thought and reflection. Plus, we will have the additional 5 million people that are being projected to enroll undoubtedly without much assistance as the limited help available for the first year has been curtailed at both the federal and state level. Another article talked about the 1.2 million loans that would have been approved for potential homebuyers now squeezed out of the market because of credit tightening and the absence of a subprime loan market, if the standards had been those in place in 2001 before everything boiled up and then over.

These are sophisticated issues for people with jobs and income, and they need help. For even poorer families simply trying to navigate certifications, access, and eligibility to get basic assistance, even less exists for many, because real assistance has evaporated. Currently I’ve been reading a couple of histories of the War on Poverty, and service provision was the a priori for many of the advocates of the program, and empowerment was the enemy from President Johnson on down to the local Mayors in most cities. In Nicaragua, the poorest country on the hemisphere for all of the contradictions in how people see this country, the strongest part of the base of support for the government still comes from the urban and rural poor who believe they are receiving services and that they have an ear that will listen, and some voice.

ACORN International and Local 100 United Labor Unions are now trying to patch together what we call Citizen Wealth Centers to provide basic services for lower income and working families across this range of issues at low costs to assure self-sufficiency to find out if we can provide a response to the demand – and distraction of peoples’ needs for services in order to be able to get people to focus on what it takes to build power in communities and workplaces. We’re not sure we can make it work, but we are sure we have to try to see if in fact for poorer families, services are a prelude to empowerment or at least a partner to power. We’ll also see what we can learn in Nicaragua now.

Looking up, I see a rainbow has risen over the roof of the hotel. I’m not superstitious, but I’m going to take that as a good sign from somewhere, so that we can stop there and mull over all of this as we look at today and think about our tomorrows.