One woman's fight to focus attention on plight of US poor

As Gale Cincotta sees it, the combination of steep federal budget cuts, high interest rates, high unemployment, and stepped-up tax breaks for corporations has been pushing the nation's poor into a tight corner.

A united protest, calling for a shift in national priorities, seemed to her the only logical answer.

Since making that decision, National People's Action (NPA), an alliance of community organizations that Mrs. Cincotta chairs, has been recruiting support with considerable success for its Reclaim America (RA) campaign.

That campaign is slated for kickoff by neighborhood organizations in various cities just after Labor Day. It will continue in joint rallies and meetings in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia, and New York City Sept. 10-14.

''We were at a point where everybody was losing and all of our wins were going to be eroded if we didn't get together,'' insists Mrs. Cincotta. Her name became nationally known a few years back for her determined and largely victorious effort to stop banks and insurance companies from redlining - writing off poor neighborhoods as too risky for loans or insurance.

''We wanted to provide an alternative to the Moral Majority in which people could participate,'' she says. ''What we're after - jobs, affordable homes - is very American. We're not a group of crazy radicals out to destroy the country. It's our country, and we want our flag and the other symbols of patriotism back. We believe we have a constitutional right to have a say in any decision which affects our communities.''

The dual target of RA's attention is the federal government and the business community. Mrs. Cincotta says both have much more of an obligation to the nation's jobless and underemployed than they seem to realize. She contends that in return for stepped-up tax breaks, which she says have led to few new jobs, corporations should set aside a pool of money for low-interest loans for mortgages, home improvement and weatherization, and small business development.

The Reclaim American campaign is also eager to see Capitol Hill reverse some of the social service budget cuts voted in. Asked if she does not think it too late for that, Mrs. Cincotta observes that congressional elections will take place six weeks after RA's march on Washington.

''I never operate on the theory that anything is irreversible,'' she says.

The rapidly growing list of Reclaim America sponsors ranges from consumer advocate Ralph Nader and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Benjamin Hooks to AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and the president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association.

Mrs. Cincotta, the widowed mother of six sons, got into this work step by step as a housewife in the 1960s when she realized that her youngest son's school, moving to mobile classrooms because of crowding, was spending less than half as much per pupil as schools in other districts. She and other parents protested. Eventually a new school was built. Later as her West Side Austin neighborhood was changing racially and banks began to shy away from making loans , she and others teamed up in an all-out battle against redlining.

Mrs. Cincotta, who now frequently flies to Washington to testify on various bills as a community expert, is nothing if not determined. Though she gathers her facts carefully before making accusations, she is not intimidated by those in positions of power and has often been criticized for her choice of confrontation tactics. In her view they are a desperate ploy turned to only after all other efforts - from letters to phone calls - have failed to make progress.

Such groups and agencies as the American Bankers Association, the Business Roundtable, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Federal Reserve Board have all had ample firsthand experience with NPA picketing and demands to talk with corporate and government leaders. NPA counts among its most solid Washington victories congressional passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which requires lending institutions to disclose the geography of their loans, and the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to invest in the neighborhoods they serve.

Several insurance companies have also changed their policies as a result of NPA's anti-redlining efforts. Mrs. Cincotta suggests that the resulting publicity has helped the companies enormously. Her favorite is an Aetna ad of a few years back in which the insurer jokes about being forced by NPA and other neighborhood groups to ''eat crow.''

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