Getting the Earned Income Tax Credit

Seattle & New Orleans: Tax day finally passed, and we were in it up to our ears this year! 

A casual conversation with Luz Vega-Marquis, President of the Marguerite Casey Foundation based in Seattle, Beth Rosales of the same, Drummond Pike of the Tides Foundation, and myself over lunch in the rain a little more than a year ago had somehow propelled us into a massive three-city experiment ACORN designed and Marguerite Casey funded.  We were all appalled that one of the few entitlements left for low income families did not have darned close to full participation and we wanted to know why not.  I happened to have it on my mind that day having recently read an article about the shortfall, and after I mentioned this scandal, Luz turned to me three times and said, “Wade, I’m interested in this – come back to me with something that changes this.” 

All of which led us to the point where we were testing out our methodology of door-to-door, full court press organizing in the diverse lower income neighborhoods of Miami, New Orleans, and San Antonio to see if we could prove that something could be done much, much differently.  Starting from scratch we managed to take this whole concept and operation from “zero to sixty” in order to try and get up and running to have free tax prep sites, crews to move on the doors and phones, tax preparers, IRS approvals and software, and everything else on-line and cooking, including what has led to a huge campaign against H&R Block and now Jackson-Hewitt, the two largest preparers in the country on their practices, especially RALs – refund anticipation loans – but that’s another story!

I met with Luz and her team late on Wednesday afternoon in Seattle and was able to give them the partial results from the first tax season – and in many ways they were amazing.  In these three cities we had filed returns worth about $5 million dollars!   About 5500 folks had filed with us and more than half of them had qualified for EITC, as we had speculated.  We had also managed to seriously engage H&R Block and are close to an agreement from the reports of Maude Hurd, President of ACORN, and Lisa Donner, Director of the ACORN Financial Justice Campaign, who has been managing the effort. 

It had also been wild and fun.  It felt like the old days when we were running everything out of storefronts with people lining the halls to get their EITC benefits and their taxes done.  Seeing the organizers and members beating the streets to push full participation in a benefit program that lower income working families desperately need, but somehow the IRS and everyone else is trying to drown in silence, all makes sense and then translates into dollars and cents.

Why with all of the benefits to people and the cities where they live, are we not doing everything that should – and can – be done?

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Different Days on Park Avenue with Citibank

 New York City: Today I attended the latest in what has been a long series of meetings and negotiations seeking to conclude a multi-year agreement between ACORN and a host of subsidiaries and businesses that compose Citcorp Group, the worldwide banking behemoth. 

 In this meeting a staff centered negotiating team head by Mike Shea for ACORN, director of our housing enterprises, and Kevin Thurm for Citgroup, the chief of staff for the President and Chief Operating Officer, were trying to wrangle disparate details into real banking products. For ACORN this could mean the difference in whether thousands of lower income families might actually become homeowners in our neighborhoods and for Citi it could mean acquiring significant share of this market and making millions in profits from a customer base that they now wanted, but had not traditionally had. 

 Almost thirty years ago with the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) intended to stop the redlining practices of banks that starved our communities of lending dollars, there were few who would have imagined that two such polar opposites might be hammering out in hard, but amiable, bargaining details on such vital partnerships.  Banks — to their surprise — have found our members to be as good — if not better — customers than any others they have.  We — in an equally shocking historical surprise — have found banks one of the few reliable sources of capital to drive development for affordable housing or resources for home ownership for lower income families in a period where the government and others have largely left the field.

 It was hard not to think about the fact that I had last been in the building a dozen years ago with 1200 ACORN members when we marched at the apex of our convention in New York City in 1992 to the building on Park Avenue to protest our inability to get Citibank to do right in any way.  We had split the column on both sides of Park marching down form Grand Central where I had the busses unload in order to confuse the police and others about our full intentions.  I had a contingent from New York ACORN coming the back way across Lexington designed to hit the building simultaneously.  Somehow in one of those exquisite tactical miracles of planning, execution, and a hundred tales of discipline and courage everything came together and we managed to breakthrough security and police and get everyone into the downstairs of the building as well as a fair contingent upstairs to negotiate for a much denied meeting with Citibank officials. 

 It was wild — an avalanche of sound — as we marched in a circle around the first floor at times and were glommed up to the reception areas at others.  At the end of the day we won enough of a commitment to meet, and it was the beginning of that relationship running in a line of ups and downs over a dozen years that now was being played out again today.  Of the dozen folks on both sides of the table probably only Mike and myself even knew the history here.

 The security of those days was massive, but by today’s standards almost seems quaint.  To get to the second floor executive suites we had to first have our bags scanned.  Then at the front desk we were confirmed and ticketed.  We then went through metallic turnstiles that security controlled and were personally escorted up the elevator to the office reception.  One could not crash a dozen folks through now, where we had moved over a thousand.

 The 2nd floor was a world unknown to me and was tastefully encapsulated in a light colored wood with big art and small, tasteful displays of toys of another generation.  While waiting we watched Sandy Weil, the legendary chair of Citicorp walk down the stairs without comment. 

 We all behaved well as we worked across the huge divides that define America in our times, and I was probably not the only one who wondered where this all might end.

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