A humane struggle: Robert Kennedy and the problem of poverty in America

Edward Robert Schmitt, Marquette University


In the decades since his death, Robert Kennedy has become a political icon, representing for many the unfulfilled promise of Cold War liberalism. His anti-poverty efforts are a large component of the myth of Robert Kennedy as liberal martyr. Nonetheless, Kennedy's attention to this issue has heretofore not commanded the full treatment it deserves. This dissertation will examine Kennedy's leadership on the issue of poverty. Its principal contributions are threefold. A study of Kennedy's anti-poverty efforts yields new insights into his political thinking and objectives, not only on the question of poverty but on many related issues, including federalism, race, education, the role of business in American life, and citizenship. Second, understanding Kennedy's leadership on the issue offers a new perspective on the dynamics of the anti-poverty politics of the 1960s, including the contest over the issue within the Democratic Party and the political pressures on both Kennedy and Johnson. Finally, this focus is a rare historical case study of political leadership on one issue that contributes to a wider understanding of the nature of political leadership at the national level in the 1960s. The first chapter will examine Kennedy's political worldview (the man); second will survey of the issue of poverty in U.S. history with particular attention to the postwar period (the historical moment). The subsequent chapters address Kennedy's increasing attention to the issue in the unfolding stages of his political career. Significant new sources have informed this study. Scholars have not appreciated the attention that Kennedy gave to his public addresses. His speechwriters and Senate aides have attested to the fact--and reading copies of his speeches that he frequently altered bear it out--that Kennedy went over his speeches with a fine-toothed comb. The speeches as such provide an invaluable record of his thoughts on the question of poverty, sources that have until now been largely untapped. Thousands of pages of Kennedy's participation in Senate committee hearings on poverty and related matters have been almost completely unexamined before this study, and these records offer a vital perspective on his political efforts. Finally, the extensive oral history collection at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston considerably enhances our understanding of his concern with the poverty issue. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Recommended Citation

Schmitt, Edward Robert, "A humane struggle: Robert Kennedy and the problem of poverty in America" (2003). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3107901.