Poverty in America: We need the leadership of “a” Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy traveled to Jackson, Mississippi in 1967, to hold hearings on the problems the poor in the South were having with a government food program that required them to purchase food stamps they could not afford. Kennedy’s actions offer us an important lesson about the capacity of a single politician to change the way people who are poor are viewed and assisted.

As Nicolaus Mills chronicled in 2006, Kennedy’s trip was overshadowed by an attack from Mississippi Senator John Stennis on the poverty program money being spent on Head Start in Mississippi. But, Kennedy’s second day in Mississippi changed his trip and the course of poverty in America. On that day Kennedy encountered a mother and her six children. She had no money to pay for food stamps and she was feeding her family rice and biscuits made from leftovers.

Kennedy was moved, but his deepest attention, as Nick Kotz, who was covering the trip for the Des Moines Register would write, went to the youngest of the children, a two-year-old baby sitting on the dirty floor. Kennedy tried tickling the baby, but he could not make the child respond. For Kennedy it was a life-changing moment. As Kotz would write, “the poor themselves made the best witnesses.”

Kennedy left the Delta with the desire to ask the heads of the major networks to produce a two-hour documentary about what it was like to live in the ghettos in poverty, to sit in a classroom that wasn’t stimulating, and to exist  in conditions that most people believed didn’t exist in America.  Most importantly, Kennedy wanted the rest of America and the politicians to see what it was like to live without hope.  Kennedy knew that the lack of understanding of these difficulties allowed politicians and voters to stay numb to the conditions that existed.

Upon their return to the beltway, Kennedy and Clark went immediately to Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman to seek emergency help for the hungry of Mississippi. But the Johnson administration, was focused on the war in Vietnam and worried about inflation, and was unwilling to increase its spending on the poor.

At the next hearing in Washington, the testimony on hunger in Mississippi was given by a Harvard physician; the Johnson administration and the Senate’s Democratic leadership finally felt enough pressure from the media to change their stance on what Kennedy wanted. Kennedy pushed through a program that would provide free food stamps for the neediest, and cheaper food stamps for all the poor, coupled with an investigation into how local officials distributed federal food.

The Senate Subcommittee on Poverty eventually reported out an emergency food and medical bill, which the Senate passed in ten days. The House approved the Senate bill, and in 1968, the emergency food aid Congress had mandated got distributed.

Sound familiar? We could substitute the name of a different war, and the name of a different national tragedy, and see that in some ways the challenges we face today aren’t so different from those that have come before for this great nation. But what has changed: Our dialogue about taking care of others, our willingness to make hard choices, our fondness for short articles and news pieces, and the inability of politicians to work together to solve our toughest problems. 

If our economy and the effectiveness of our systems of care for those who are suffering are going to change then we need the sort of leadership that this story of Kennedy evokes. We need to create a dialogue about how to help others, and we need to elect politicians who talk about real ideas for solving real problems—for the long term.

What are we going to do to make that happen?