The first half of the 1980's was a time of dramatic changes in American politics and social life.
The political elite in America were less concerned with the needs of low- and moderate-income people than ever. A main goal of the Reagan Administration was to redistribute wealth upward, away from those with little and toward those with much through so-called "trickle down economics". The idea was that if you give the very wealthy lots of tax breaks, the wealth will "trickle down"; history has shown that it doesn't work, and never has. The era emphasized "looking out for Number One" and ignored the concerns of the needy or the long-term general welfare of the American people as a whole.
The immediate impact of Reagan's presidency was a severe recession with increased unemployment, a rapid increase in the cost of necessities and serious economic hardship for the lower end of the income scale.
Reagan also set about changing the shape of American politics by taking important responsibilities away from national control and placing them at state and local levels. Tax cuts, vastly increased defense spending, and dramatic cuts in social spending saddled state and local governments with severe social problems. The mentally ill were turned out of hospitals; many ended up homeless and living on the streets. The beginning of the AIDS crisis was ignored, leaving millions ill and dying. The Savings & Loan industry was deregulated, leading to the S&L financial collapse.
Meanwhile the federal government piled up unheard-of budget deficits.
ACORN in the Reagan Era
By the end of the 20/80 Campaign, ACORN's staff was stretched thin by the demands of meeting their goal of expanding to twenty states by 1980. Many of their resources and much of their energy in 1980 had been dedicated to participating in both the Republican and Democratic Party presidential primaries and national conventions.
In addition to the pressing social issues, ACORN had its own internal concerns. The rapid growth of the previous five years required a period of adaptation, internal consolidation, survival - and surprisingly, continuing growth.
ACORN now had to return to their original work, organizing and coping with the changes occurring in American life after the election of Ronald Reagan.
ACORN was not about to fold up its tents and go home in the face of such an assault. Rather, it was uniquely prepared and positioned to deal with it. ACORN had the hearts and ears of low- and moderate-income people in twenty states, understood the problems of grassroots political activism, and had solid roots at the local level.
Turning adversity into opportunity, ACORN launched a campaign to obtain affordable housing. Long before it became fashionable to be concerned about the homeless, ACORN was fighting for homes for low- and moderate-income people. Noting that economic upheaval had forced many people to default on mortgages, ACORN sought to place needy people in the resulting vacant homes. This required the forceful and illegal (though logical and moral) seizing of the properties - squatting.
The squatting campaigns involved personal, community and political dimensions. The personal needs of people without homes attracted many to the advertisements ACORN placed in papers asking "Do you need a home?" The squatting campaign required a personal commitment to move into a vacant, usually poorly kept house and refit it for comfortable living. It also involved the risk of arrest if local authorities refused them the legal occupation of the home. Nevertheless, the response was great.
The community response was strong as well. Increasing numbers of vacant houses in neighborhoods meant opportunities for criminal activities such as rape, drug-dealing, and arson, among others. Residents of communities in which houses stood vacant wanted to have responsible neighbors inhabiting and maintaining the homes.
Squatting did not occur under cover of darkness. It was well publicized. Before squatting sites were approved, neighborhood approval was obtained. Moreover, neighbors frequently participated in the entry and refitting of the houses. This was a part of the political dimension of squatting:
- Local officials had to agree not to evict or prosecute squatters.
- ACORN attempted to legalize the act.
- Local officials were asked to subsidize the costs of squatting in an effort to improve the quality of life of the squatters and their neighbors.
Through these campaigns ACORN gained national exposure on housing issues and cemented its reputation as the leading authority on low-income community development.
Squatting was not ACORN's only response to the Reagan Administration's assault on low- and moderate-income Americans. Fifteen thousand ACORN members and their allies established "Reagan Ranches" in over 35 cities to protest Reagan policies of massive military spending and meager social spending.
Tent cities symbolizing the homelessness Reagan's policies created sprang up in city after city. In June of 1982, one sprung up in Washington, D.C., in the shadow of the White House. The national action, lasting two days, met serious resistance from the National Parks Service who tried time and again to run ACORN tenters off the grounds. Despite harassment and intimidation, ACORN protesters held their ground, marched on the White House and testified before a Congressional committee about the housing crisis in America.
The culmination Reagan Ranch was held at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. This protest and voter registration drive, despite extremely hot weather, involved 15,000 Dallas-area voters.