Community Organizations and Unions are Key to Upward Mobility

Wade Rathke Posted by Wade Rathke.

Wade Rathke is the founder of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – a nationwide activist network engaged in community organizing.


Community Organizations and Unions are Key to Upward Mobility

New Orleans    Sometimes at ACORN’s annual legislative conferences in Washington, DC, I would be just in and out, but one time I overlapped a contentious session between Harvard’s Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame and ACORN leaders and members. The members were arguing that their experience with ACORN and their local community organizations in their neighborhoods contradicted his claims about the increasing weakness of community and organizational ties. Everyone ended up politely in a standoff of sorts.

All of which made my eyes stick to a piece in the Times that talked about a study that “finds greater economic mobility in areas with more union membership.” Their formula though was reductionist, essentially that in urban areas where there is more union density there are higher wages paid to both members and non-members and these wage increases waterfall down to children and the combined impact helps increase economic mobility on an inter-generational level. All of that is good news and hardly a surprise but nice to hear that Raj Chetty of Stanford now and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard are putting the pieces together to provide more proof. The Times reported that the “size of the effect is small….”

But, what are the other “effects” that are larger according to the mega-domes? They say there are five factors that impact a low-income child’s chances of fighting their way up to the middle class in our increasingly stratified and unequal America: single motherhood (not good), high school dropout rate (bad), residential segregation (terrible), and, big drum roll, hear this – “the amount of social capital as measured by indicators like voter turnout and participation in community organizations.” And, according to the authors that’s not just good, but great! Or as Chetty writes elsewhere: “some of the strongest predictors of upward mobility are correlates of social capital….”

The members were not just arguing for the heck of it back a decade ago with Putnam, they were right, because they were speaking from their experience, and Putnam rather than poo-pooing their points because of falling membership in churches, garden clubs, scouting, and, yes, bowling leagues, should have been applauding them as the way up and out in the future. Add a community organization that also does voter registration, as ACORN did, and we were mixing the secret sauce in low-and-moderate income neighborhoods that could have powered Popeye, Superman, and the whole hall of heroes.

We’ve talked and advocated community-labor coalitions for years. Now we have a new argument. Add community organizations and our whole range of activities to build social capital and combine that participation with participation in unions to raise income, and, wham-bam, we’re moving on up!