“I’ve seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines have closed and their jobs have gone, and no one — neither industry, labor nor government — has cared enough to help.”Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
Monell Patton sat on her front porch mending a bed skirt as she and her husband James watched the long line of cars make its way up their road. The strangers parked on the shoulder and walked up to where the old Vortex schoolhouse had stood.
Thirty-six years earlier, in February 1968, they had seen something similar when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D‑N.Y., came to the mountains to hold a field hearing on the effectiveness of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in Eastern Kentucky.
Patton was a young woman then and had watched the senator and his entourage through a window because she was too shy to meet him. But he made a lasting impression nonetheless.
“Just thinking about him caring enough to visit this little place,” she said, “it brings back a lot of memories.”
Soon after Kennedy came to Kentucky, he began his campaign for president. Less than four months later, he was dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet after reaching for the hand of a 17-year-old immigrant busboy in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen following his big win in the California Democratic primary.
Patton was one of several people I interviewed for an article for The Jessamine Journal in 2004 about director John Malpede’s “RFK in EKY,” a re-enactment of Kennedy’s 200-mile “poverty tour” of Appalachian Kentucky. The Appalshop production, which the director compared to “street theater,” revisited all the places Kennedy had gone during his hearings for the Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, including a former one-room school in Barwick, a strip mine at Yellow Creek, Alice Lloyd College, the Fleming-Neon high school, Hazard and Whitesburg, and the courthouse in Prestonsburg, where he spoke before flying to Louisville to meet Barry and Mary Bingham, owners of The Courier-Journal.
One of the actors in the performance, Phyllis Buckner, played the part of her mother, Betty Terrill, who had been a witness at the Vortex hearing. Terrill had told Kennedy two of her children would have to quit high school because she couldn’t afford textbooks, and that there were no jobs for them close to home.
That hadn’t changed, said Buckner, whose husband was a long-distance truck driver.
“Anybody that has a job has to go out of the county to do it,” she said.
Some things had improved by 2004 though. Books and school lunches were free, and the poor no longer had to pay for their food stamps. But welfare still barely paid enough for a family to get by.
In the last 50 years, many politicians and journalists have come to Eastern Kentucky to “discover” poverty. But some of the people I met that day felt that Kennedy was different and might have made a difference if he had lived and been elected president.
One of them was Peter Edelman, who was a legislative assistant for Kennedy in 1968. I had an opportunity to talk with him during the re-enactment and attended his lecture the day before at the University of Kentucky.
“He always had a feeling about the people who were excluded, the people who were on the periphery,” Edelman said.
While he was attorney general for his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy worked on juvenile delinquency and poverty, which helped lay the groundwork for LBJ’s efforts that would include Head Start, Job Corps, Upward Bound, and other Office of Economic Opportunity programs.
One of Kennedy’s ideas was for a domestic Peace Corps that would become Volunteers in Service to America. He also believed that programs for low-income people should, to the extent possible, be managed by the people themselves, not by mayors and other politicians, and that idea was the genesis of Community Action. Unfortunately, the elected officials, who didn’t want money coming into their communities without them getting credit and control, did eventually take it over.
“The idea of ‘maximum feasible participation,’ which caused all of that trouble, that really came from Robert Kennedy,” Edelman said.
Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant revitalization project in Brooklyn also was an early example of the kind of public-private partnership and enterprise zone approach to fighting poverty that other politicians, including Jack Kemp and Bill Clinton, later emulated.
And I read just last week that Kennedy may have influenced Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., when in 1968 Edelman’s future wife, Marian Wright, asked the senator what she should say to King at an upcoming meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Kennedy answered: “Tell him to bring poor people to Washington to stay until Congress is so uncomfortable that it does what they want just to get them to go home.”
The era of welfare ‘reform’
In 1996, Edelman, who was then working for President Clinton at Health and Human Services, gained national attention when he quit his job to protest the president’s signing the law that ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Clinton, who had campaigned to “end welfare as we know it,” had cited RFK’s words about work and welfare in defending his decision to sign the law, and in doing so had taken them out of context and twisted them to mean something Kennedy never supported.
The work requirements for single moms on Temporary Assistance for Needed Families, which replaced AFDC, didn’t help them find adequate work, it only pushed them and their children off of public assistance, so that within two years, the average welfare mother had lost more in assistance than she had gained from low-wage employment.
What had always been true of welfare remained true of welfare “reform.” As Edelman said at UK in 2004: “You couldn’t really get out of poverty with welfare or a combination of welfare and food assistance. It was made available grudgingly, and more importantly, it was unconnected to helping people to find work and to get away from depending on the cash help.”
For all the talk about a culture of dependency, most of the welfare recipients I knew or interviewed in my career as a newspaper reporter were single moms who cycled in and out of low-wage jobs and welfare, or who needed food and housing assistance despite the fact that they worked, sometimes at multiple part-time jobs, or off the books, doing things like cleaning people’s houses or harvesting tobacco.
Read Randy’s bibliography to explore recent books on Kennedy and Appalachian Kentucky that he recommends.
And welfare was never a substantial drain on the country’s resources. At its height in 1994, AFDC (what people usually meant when they talked about welfare) was only $14.2 billion, or less than 1 percent of the federal budget, plus $11.9 million in state and federal funds. TANF further reduced that funding by kicking people off of assistance without an alternative.
Misconceptions about public assistance and attitudes about poor people have grown increasingly nasty in the last 30 years. Even in Eastern Kentucky, many who are barely above the federal poverty line of $23,030 for a family of three (usually a mother and two children) or who earn little more than the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour resent those who have even less.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the federal government has given far more in tax breaks to the wealthy and big corporations than it has to those in dire need, but the tendency is to make scapegoats of the most vulnerable.
While Bobby Kennedy’s emphasis was on work and national policy to provide jobs, he understood the necessity for a safety net for those needing temporary sustenance as well as a hand up, and he understood the indignity of public policies that presumed to micromanage the lives of poor people in ways government would never treat other Americans.
Instead of ending welfare as we know it, Kennedy wanted to end poverty in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known.
It isn’t too late to learn from him.
As Bobby Kennedy said time and again, wherever he went and witnessed injustice: “We can do better.”