“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.

Robert F. Kennedy
Robert F. Kennedy lis­ten­ing to local res­i­dents of Neon, Ky in 1968. (RFK in KY Project)

“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 improvements

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.

Vortex school, Wolfe County, in 1968
Vortex school, Wolfe County, in 1968. (RFK in KY Project)

“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.

Further reading

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.”

  • Randy Patrick

    Randy Patrick is a deputy coun­ty clerk for elec­tions and vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and a for­mer reporter and edi­tor of The Winchester Sun.