JFK’s Rural Development Legacy

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.

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The torch has been passed to a new generation several times since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The idealistic glow of Camelot—a term applied to the youthful White House—wore off a long time ago, and the nation barely resembles what it was then.

Half a century after his death, most people alive in the early 1960s likely remember Kennedy for his elegant 1961 Inaugural Address, the Cuban missile crisis and the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Few people would associate Kennedy with rural development, conservation and the environment.

Kennedy’s short administration was perched on a divide, with notable and lasting accomplishments. If he had not been assassinated, it is likely JFK would have launched the second New Deal, mirroring the activism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. This was left to his successor, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson from Texas.

In the usually incremental way of Washington politics, Kennedy inherited from his predecessor, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, an expanded rural mail service and the “Food for Peace” foreign aid program. Equally important, he received the genesis of Ike’s rural development program, started in 1955 and established as a rural development committee for interagency cooperation in October 1959.

Eisenhower touted this rural development initiative in last State of the Union Address in January 1961, noting that “the problems of low-income farm families received systematic attention for the first time.”

Photo courtesy of the University of North Dakota JFK Digital Archives
The University of North Dakota audience heard Kennedy say that the nation was “gradually narrowing the difference between the standard of living of our city and rural populations.”

“This program has gone forward in 39 States, yielding higher incomes and a better living for rural people most in need,” he said. While Congress had also authorized a food stamp plan, the administration was reluctant to implement it.

Meanwhile, Eisenhower, himself a farmer, was also a proponent of conservation. Perhaps his most significant contribution was getting the Soil Bank Act through Congress. The soil bank, a foreshadowing of today’s Conservation Reserve Act, paid farmers to retire land from production for 10 years. Besides reducing soil erosion, the land placed into the bank provided wildlife habitat.

Kennedy’s ascent into the White House marked a change in style and tone, with the opportunity to take advantage of post-World War II prosperity to revitalize FDR’s New Deal. His approach to rural development and conservation had domestic and international implications. In the  planned version of his address at the 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.

Photo courtesy of the University of North Dakota JFK Digital Archives
People gather outside the president’s speech. After Kennedy’s death, the president’s rural platform was left to Lyndon Johnson to revise and enact.

In the next few months, Johnson’s administration would move forward aggressively on human rights issues and rural development, invoking Kennedy’s memories and dreams, spelled out in his North Dakota speech:

“We are seeking, in short, true parity of opportunity; but it will not come overnight. To achieve it will require a new impetus in electrification development, new starts in our multipurpose dam programs, and new and greater use of our land, water, timber, and wildlife resources.”

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.




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