John F. Kennedy: Fighting Global Poverty

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POTOMAC, Maryland — John F. Kennedy was elected to the American presidency in 1960. He advocated for greater attention to the “unanswered questions of poverty and surplus” among other things. He stated that “if a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” In fewer than 24 hours after his acceptance speech of the DNC’s nomination, JFK issued his first Executive Order, authorizing the expansion of domestic food distribution programs for those in need.

Successful Programs in Poverty Alleviation

This was the beginning of sweeping action to combat poverty domestically as well as internationally. JFK oversaw a number of bold new initiatives aimed at combating poverty and fostering economic development in developing nations. These included the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Peace Corps, Food for Peace and the Alliance for Progress.

  1. USAID: President John Kennedy’s most enduring antipoverty legacy is USAID, a government agency responsible for distributing civilian aid abroad. Its chief targets in aid distribution are disaster relief, poverty relief and socioeconomic development. The agency also encompasses a variety of other international missions from comprehensive “country development” to NGO grants. It continues to be one of the largest official aid agencies in the world, with a budget of more than $50 billion in 2016.
  2. The Peace Corps: The Peace Corps achieved full authorization in 1961 as an agent of promoting peace in developing regions through education. The first volunteers were dispatched in the same year. Within two years, there were around 7,300 volunteers in more than 40 countries. At its peak in 1966, the Peace Corps had 15,000 volunteers. The program continues to be a hallmark of executive policy despite setbacks by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Food for Peace: The Food for Peace policy can trace its origins to the previous administration, but it was JFK who elevated it to a federal program by day one. By the end of 1962, the program was feeding “tens of millions” worldwide. From 1966, the program saw massive expansion to the point where it transcends a single federal agency and lists “combat[ing]world hunger and malnutrition and their causes” as their number one policy goal.

Shortcomings

Despite strong successes, not all of John Kennedy’s aid programs are regarded as successful. The Alliance for Progress is widely considered to be a failure, albeit the only one of the above programs. The intention was to revitalize Latin American development through major economic investment and increased U.S. exports. This initiative saw some success in GDP growth and literacy, but very little progress in most other sectors. The main shortcoming of the Alliance for Progress is understood to have been a lack of support and willingness to engage on both sides, especially after changes in leadership. It was formally disbanded in 1973.

Although the program only achieved marginal success compared to other, ongoing programs, all of these and more have come to define the “New Frontier” that President John Kennedy had envisioned. His legacy of combating poverty and hunger is generally overshadowed by his legacy of “defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.” However, John Kennedy fought poverty globally. His legacy continues to make an impact today.

Bardia Memar
Photo: Flickr

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