The Politics of Poverty

Kennedy's concern for the plight of the poor never turned into a broad legislative program. But his successor seized on the issue, claiming it was the martyred president's last wish that he do so.

Late in the day on Saturday, November 23, 1963, Walter Heller, Kennedy’s chief economic adviser, was called into the Oval Office to brief [the new president, Lyndon B.] Johnson. “Just as I was about to go out of his office and had opened the door,” Heller wrote in notes he made just after the conversation and marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL, “the President gently pushed it shut and drew me back in and said, ‘Now, I want to say something about all this talk that I’m a conservative who is likely to go back to the Eisenhower ways or give in to the economy bloc in Congress. It’s not so, and I want you to tell your friends—Arthur Schlesinger, [John Kenneth] Galbraith, and other liberals—that it is not so … If you looked at my record, you would know that I am a Roosevelt New Dealer. As a matter of fact, to tell the truth, John F. Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.”

For some months Heller had been urging Kennedy to launch what he called an “attack on poverty.” At the time of the assassination it was in the planning stages and had not received any public attention …

In early December of 1963 Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published an article on Kennedy in The Saturday Evening Post. He wrote, “In one of the last talks I had with him, he was musing about the legislative program for next January, and said, ‘The time has come to organize a national assault on the causes of poverty, a comprehensive program, across the board.’ ” No sooner was Schlesinger’s article published than Johnson wrote a letter to the American Public Welfare Association promising, identically, “a national assault on the causes of poverty.” The severely grieving Robert Kennedy found a piece of notepaper on which his brother, during the last Cabinet meeting he had conducted, had scribbled the word poverty several times and circled it; he framed it and kept it in his office at the Justice Department. By the time Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, fighting poverty had taken on the coloration of having been John F. Kennedy’s last wish.

In truth there is no evidence that this was his last wish, and it is not at all clear how far Kennedy would have let Heller go with his poverty program. Certainly all the living principals agree today that one thing Kennedy would not have done is publicly declare war on poverty. In Heller’s next-to-last talk with Kennedy on the subject, on October 21, 1963, Kennedy had, it is true, been quite enthusiastic. He said that an article on a poor white area of Kentucky by Homer Bigart in the previous day’s New York Times had convinced him that “there was a tremendous problem to be met,” according to Heller’s notes of the meeting. The notes continue, “It’s perfectly clear that he is aroused about this and if we could really produce a program to fit the bill, he would be inclined to run with it.”

Compared with those comments, however, Kennedy’s last words to Heller about the poverty problem, at a meeting on November 19, three days before the assassination, represented a pulling-back. In the time between the two talks Kennedy had been briefed on the 1964 election by Richard Scammon, the director of the census. Scammon said that many voters thought that federal programs really didn’t help them. Kennedy asked him how a new poverty program might affect the campaign. Scammon said that it wouldn’t do him much good, because most voters didn’t consider themselves poor, and those who did weren’t the ones a Democratic presidential candidate had to win over. On November 19, according to Heller’s notes, “I wondered just what his current feeling about it was. His attitude was, ‘No, I’m still very much in favor of doing something on the poverty theme if we can get a good program, but I also think it’s important to make clear that we’re doing something for the middle-income man in the suburbs, etc. But the two are not at all inconsistent with one another. So go right ahead with your work on it.’ ”

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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