A graduate of Harvard University, Kest began working for ACORN as a Head Organizer (in the states of Arkansas, Connecticut, and New Jersey) in 1975. He later served as the organization's National Campaign Director before ultimately becoming Executive Director.
In a 2003 City Journalarticle, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern quoted Kest as having said, vis a vis welfare-reform initiatives designed to move people off the welfare rolls and into paying jobs: "There’s an emerging consensus that for those who can work, it should be encouraged. [But work] should come with adequate supports, such as day care and transportation, to get people out of poverty.... We also still believe that, for a lot of people, it’s not right to force them to work. There should be some type of income support for those who still won’t be able to join the work force." "In other words," Stern summarized, Kest's prescription was for "perpetual dependency."
Under Kest’s guidance, ACORN has been a resolute advocate of raising the minimum wage. “The new U.S. Congress needs to put a higher minimum wage and the needs of working families on the top of its agenda," Kest said in 2006.
Though Kest and ACORN profess their dedication to helping the poor, Kest has refused to take a stand against the astronomical out-of-wedlock birth rates that are highly correlated with poverty. "We [ACORN] are more focused on irresponsible behavior in the corporate sector," he says. "I don't think [illegitimacy] comes anywhere close to the irresponsible behavior of people running the largest businesses in this country."