ANYONE who’s been surfing the right-wing blogosphere would mistake the activist group ACORN for a sinister force hell-bent on falsifying the US Census, registering nonexistent voters, and promoting underage prostitution. This caricature distorts the group’s intentions and overstates its influence. Yet the recent criticism contains one point of truth: ACORN should not be both a strident advocate for left-wing policy positions and a government contractor providing services in a neutral way.
The group, whose acronym stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, came under fire after its employees in Baltimore were videotaped offering advice on tax avoidance to two people who claimed to be starting a brothel. The Census Bureau and the IRS have now sworn off any links to ACORN, and both houses of Congress have voted to strip federal funding from the group, which has received contracts to promote fair housing, prevent foreclosures, and help public-housing tenants promote better conditions.
ACORN always made an odd social-service contractor. It emerged from the ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s, when mass protest and ground-level organizing looked like the best solution to poverty and injustice. The poor, to be sure, still need a voice, and the group’s Massachusetts affiliate has been wise to focus on causes such as paid sick leave. But the national organization minimizes the distinction between ACORN and other organizations that serve the needy. “Everybody has an ideology, from the United Way to the Red Cross,’’ says Brian Kettenring, a national ACORN spokesman. “The question for nonprofits is: Does their work serve the public interest?’’
That’s too cute by a half. The United Way and the Red Cross strive to maintain political neutrality. ACORN does not. Still, the group insists that its public dollars aren’t mingled with money for political advocacy. Its position is similar to that of religious groups that take government money but vow not to proselytize. But as with the faith-based groups, ACORN’s separation of church and state can be difficult to monitor. The national organization, which recently moved its headquarters from New Orleans to Washington, has 71 local affiliates, plus a number of like-minded but legally separate allied organizations such as ACORN Housing. New management took over last year, after an ACORN founder’s brother was found to have embezzled $1 million from the group.
In response to the outcry over the Baltimore video, ACORN has hired former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger to review its operations. A reorganized ACORN can be a positive force in community organizing. But in awarding contracts to nonprofits, federal agencies should stick with those that have technical expertise without a political agenda.