Robert Kennedy consistently related to the underdog. He made a point of witnessing firsthand the hunger of children in the Mississippi Delta as well as the hardship of those living in urban ghettos and on Native American reservations. He was relentless in his efforts to provide for improved circumstances for those who were hungry and poor.

In the 1950s, nearly a quarter of the population of the United States lived in poverty, with minorities, children, and those living in rural and urban areas disproportionally represented. In 1966, the President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty submitted a report,  “The People Left Behind” that outlined and identified the struggle of 14 million Americans--a struggle that few seemed to recognize.

Urban centers of poverty seemed just as hopeless. After a visit to Harlem in New York City, Robert Kennedy described the experience: “I have been in tenements in Harlem in the past several weeks where the smell of rats was so strong that it was difficult to stay there for five minutes, and where children slept with lights turned on their feet to discourage attacks…”

“Our Ideal of America”

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Rural Poverty

Kennedy was deeply concerned about the growing division between Americans who lived comfortably and the growing number of those who lived in poverty.  Always one to see things for himself,  he was struck by what he witnessed when he visited the Mississippi Delta, one of the most impoverished areas of the nation. He did all he could to bring attention to the issue and to influence government legislation that would make things better for those who suffered from such dire poverty.   Reflecting on that visit, he said:

"I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so that we can get enough good so that they can live, so that their lives are no destroyed. I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of American and I think we need a change."

“The Tenements of Harlem”

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Poverty in Urban Centers

After World War II,  large numbers of African Americans migrated from the south to New York and other cities in the north.  Kennedy was concerned that in the North the fight for true equality still loomed in the wings,  waiting for transformation. It lacked the leadership  that had spotlighted issues in the South and launched them onto the world stage.

Robert Kennedy believed that the best way to help the poor was not to have them rely on government bureaucracy but rather to give them the means by which they could work their own way out of poverty. After touring a highly run-down area of New York City known as Bedford-Stuyvesant –  riddled with crime,  unemployment and deteriorated housing –  Kennedy was challenged to find a way to help the community to rebuild itself. He met with community activists, who were cynical of his interest.  They claimed that he was just another ‘white politician who was out visiting for the day and would never be heard from again’.  But Kennedy was a man of action.  His response was to launch the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Project, a joint venture between residents and businesses. The project was designed to revitalize and rebuild businesses within the community and, in doing so,  restore hope for its residents.