Who are these evil, awful ACORN people conservatives keep attacking? Grandmothers and great-grandmothers like Junette Marcano and Miriam McKnight, organizers of the West Oak Lane branch.

"I got sick after the latest attacks. We work so hard. They're trying to demoralize and disenfranchise us," says Marcano, 66, a retired nurse championing increased funding for neighborhood schools. "ACORN means a lifeline to the low- and moderate-income communities. It empowers people who don't have a voice in the community."

These are the local faces of ACORN: idealistic recent college grads toiling for modest pay, and African Americans, mostly women, trying to make their communities better. "Our members represent the best of their community, they care so deeply," says head organizer Neil Herrmann, 27, who works 60-hour weeks helping the poor.

With everything else going on in the world, perhaps the attacks on ACORN, the antipoverty community coalition, might have subsided.

But no.

This has been a cruel autumn for the Association for Community Organizations Now. ACORN, the target of virulent attacks during the presidential campaign, is back in the news, due to allegations of voter-registration irregularities in some states and a tawdry sting operation at multiple offices where some employees used abysmal judgment. In Philadelphia, after a couple posing as a prostitute and law student sought assistance in using underage Salvadoran sex workers, an organizer phoned the cops.

Since the national sting went public last month, Congress yanked federal funding for ACORN Housing, a sister organization providing residential counseling. The IRS, which had furnished a printer and tax software, severed its partnership with ACORN as a volunteer income-tax assistance site.

At the threadbare location at Broad and Parrish, the first-floor ACORN Housing office is dead, addressing only emergency cases. In March 2008, ACORN stopped the sheriff from selling owner-occupied homes that had punitive loans, helping well-intentioned residents keep their properties.

Last tax season, local staffers completed 2,812 returns gratis, netting $4.3 million in refunds flowing back into the neighborhoods, and almost $1.7 million in earned-income tax credits, according to legislative director Ian Phillips. Now free tax preparation for the poor is on hold, too.

The conservative "media echo chamber" successfully "framed" ACORN coverage last year, according to the study "Manipulating the Public Agenda" by academics Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin. "Voter fraud" was mentioned in more than half of 647 stories, without the claim being verified. Fraud is rare, as opposed to registration irregularities, which are common even at the DMV. In most cases, ACORN reported irregularities, as required under law, then acted to stop improper conduct, mostly by temporary employees. At the Philadelphia office, organizers made up to three calls to verify every registration.

Why do conservatives fear ACORN? Perhaps because its organizers fought for a minimum-wage increase, angering big business, or because they were early, adamant critics of redlining and predatory lending practices, thereby incensing banks.

But mostly critics seem infuriated by ACORN's voter-registration efforts in economically disadvantaged communities, among Latinos and people of color, folks who tend to vote Democratic. ACORN reports registering nearly 1.7 million voters in the 2004 and 2006 elections, and 1.3 million voters last year, 144,000 in Pennsylvania, more than half in Philadelphia.

When angry, embittered, increasingly disenfranchised people don't like what they see, they smear opponents by questioning their legitimacy, politics, methods, and goals. ACORN has been targeted by Berman & Co., a Washington outfit known for "Astroturf lobbying," launching fake grassroots efforts through Web sites, protests, and dubious front organizations funded by corporate clients.

"Let us do what we do best, which is to give power to the poor," Marcano says. "These people who are attacking us want the rich to get richer, the poor to get poorer."

McKnight, the great-grandmother of 22, worked as a cashier and on an assembly line. Her desire is simple: to leave this place better than she found it.

"Americans need to stop fighting. We're not leading the world in education. Who is our future? Our children," she says. "I'm 78. I've had a very good life. But I think about what I could have done, what I could have been, had I been given a good education. If we don't educate these young people, our future, what's this country going to be? Nothing."

Maybe this is what worries ACORN critics most: bright, engaged and increasingly empowered women like Junette Marcano and Miriam McKnight having their voices heard, their issues addressed, and their many votes counted.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.