JFK’s Rural Development Legacy

[imgbelt img=uap16474web-1.jpg]On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, Americans are more likely to associate JFK with top hats and “Camelot” than with rural development. But during his short term in office, Kennedy proposed new approaches to rural policy that had domestic and international implications.


State of the Union Address in January 1961, noting that “the problems of low-income farm families received systematic attention for the first time.”

University of North Dakota on September 25, 1963, about two months before his death, Kennedy outlined his philosophy:

No tour of conservation landmarks would be complete without a visit to the upper Missouri Valley. For here dramatic changes are taking place in the use of land and water. Here, in North Dakota, the principles and projects of conservation have converted what might otherwise be desolate country into a land of beautiful lakes….

“But these massive concrete structures and huge quantities of water are only the tools and symbols of change. Their greatest significance lies in their effects upon the lives of the people in this area—the farm and rural people particularly. For we are gradually narrowing the difference between the standard of living of our city and rural populations. Parity of farm income is important—but beyond that, we are gradually achieving a parity between urban and rural peoples in other aspects of life—in their ability to obtain electric service at comparable rates—in the power and other resources available for economic development—in their facilities and opportunities for recreation.

Kennedy’s understanding of rural development and conservation led him to take some significant actions at home and abroad, including:

  • The Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 was what Kennedy called a “bill [that] will help make it possible for thousands of Americans who want to work, to work. It will be of special help to those areas which have been subjected to chronic unemployment for many months, and in some cases for many years.”
  • The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act of 1961 expanded federal loans to rural areas through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Home Administration, now known as the Farm Service Agency.
  • The Peace Corps, created in 1961, has sent volunteers to communities throughout the world to assist them with development projects. Kennedy’s proposal for a Youth Conservation Corps, a mirror of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, to engage youth in environmental activities, was not approved by Congress until 1971 during Richard M. Nixon’s administration.
  • Support for conclusions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to further federal studies that eventually led to the ban of the pesticide DDT.
  • An Executive Order revised the Rural Development Committee in October, 1963, to “…place particular emphasis on effective public and private cooperation and leadership for rural development at the State and local levels, and to that end, shall provide guidance for the conduct of Federal rural-development program functions and related activities in a manner designed to produce optimum State, local, and private participation and initiative in identifying and meeting local needs.”

More significant changes to rural development policy were to come, but Kennedy would not live to see them. The new executive order was a precursor for programs such as the War on Poverty and the Appalachian Regional Commission that were in the works when he traveled to Texas on the fateful trip that was anticipating the 1964 presidential campaign.