Organizer in Chief

Steven Malanga| New York Post | August 9, 2008

Barack Obama represents the first appearance in a presidential race of a rela tively new political type: the community organizer.

His past as a local activist in Chicago has provoked sneers from Republicans and questions from most voters. What the heck is a community organizer, where do these folks get their money – and why are they so controversial?

The roots of community organizing stretch back to the 1930s and the efforts of organizer Saul Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation and author of “Rules for Radicals,” to organize people in low-income areas into a political force to combat the political machine that ran Chicago.

Alinsky won many admirers on the Left, but it took President Lyndon Johnson’s War On Poverty to supercharge community organizing by directing billions of federal dollars to neighborhood groups with the naive and ambiguous goal of “empowering” communities.

The federal cash, eventually supplemented by state and local tax funds, helped create a universe of government-funded groups headed by local activists running everything from job-training efforts to recreation programs to voter-registration drives – far beyond anything Alinsky could’ve imagined.

Thousands of groups – eventually, 3,000 in New York City alone – arose to snatch government money. One startling sign of the growth: Today, New York now has more jobs at social-service agencies, most funded with government money, than on Wall Street.

Yet those who designed Johnson’s programs endowed them with vague goals such as “community empowerment” and often failed to demand specific, achievable results from those they funded. Thus, money went to inexperienced local activists to run job-training programs that failed to find people jobs. Other grants went to local groups to help businesses in poor neighborhoods get loans – with little sense of whether their clients could actually ever pay back the money.

Nothing symbolizes the failure and waste better than a federal boondoggle known as the Community Development Block Grant program. Obama calls it “an important program that provides housing and creating [sic] jobs for low- and moderate-income people and places” – yet, over the last 40 years, the CDGB has funneled some $110 billion through community groups with little sense that it has done much good.

One visible sign of failure: Buffalo, the city that’s gotten the most CDGB funding (per capita), is worse off today than it was 40 years ago. An investigation by The Buffalo News several years ago found that much of the money had been wasted in grants to organizations run by politically connected activists.