Hurricane Katrina and Robert Kennedy

Hurricane Katrina and Robert Kennedy

The galvanizing effect of one politician on changing the food stamp program–now someone should do the same for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina

In April 1967, Robert Kennedy and three other members of the Senate Subcommittee on Poverty traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, to hold hearings on the problems the poor in the South were having with a government food program that required them to purchase food stamps they could not afford. The Mississippi hearings, which were a follow-up to hearings held earlier in Washington, marked the start of a process that would change the way the nation’s food stamp program was run.

Today, as recovery from Hurricane Katrina languishes, while the state and federal governments fingerpoint, Kennedy’s actions in Mississippi offer us an important lesson about the capacity of a single politician, angry and determined, to change the way the poor are seen.

Robert Kennedy had no significant Senate seniority in 1967. He had only won election from New York in 1964. But he was the member of the Subcommittee on Poverty who drew the most media coverage, and it was upon him that the burden of making hunger a visible political issue fell. The hearings in Jackson turned out to be less than Kennedy hoped for. Held in the ballroom of the Hotel Heidelberg, they drew powerful testimony about the level of hunger in Mississippi, but media reports were overshadowed by an angry attack from Mississippi Senator John Stennis on the poverty program money being spent on Head Start in Mississippi.

It was Kennedy’s second day in Mississippi that changed his trip and the coverage it received. On that day Kennedy and Senator Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania traveled to the Mississippi Delta to see firsthand the poverty and hunger they had been hearing about. Kennedy met hostility on this day as well. Before he left Jackson, a bystander handed him a pamphlet with a headline that predicted, “Bobby Kennedy will be Murdered.” But what mattered most for Kennedy on his second day in Mississippi was his encounter with a mother and her six children. She had no money to pay for food stamps, she told Senator Clark. She was feeding her family rice and biscuits made from leftover surplus commodities.

Kennedy was moved, but his deepest attention, as Nick Kotz, who was covering the trip for the Des Moines Register would write, went to the youngest of the children, a two-year-old baby sitting on the dirty floor. Kennedy tried caressing and tickling the baby, but nothing he did could make her respond. She kept her eyes turned downward as if in a daze. For Kennedy and the reporters following him, it was an indelible moment. The dark, windowless shack of the woman and her family, with its smell of mildew and urine, was overwhelming. “I’ve seen bad things in West Virginia, but I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere in the United States,” Kennedy whispered.

Back in Washington, Kennedy and Clark went immediately to Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman to seek emergency help for the hungry of Mississippi. But the Johnson administration, by 1967 focu...

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