This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
THE WHITE HOUSE’S ANSWER TO WEST VIRGINIA
There has been a great deal of dispute in recent months over the value of Presidential primaries. Primaries have been condemned as “eyewash” by some, and praised as the “foundation of the democratic process” by others. They have been criticized as meaningless by some, and extolled as the expression of the people’s will by others. They have been entered by some, and they have been avoided by others. But your primary – the West Virginia primary – has one accomplishment to its credit – has conferred one benefit – made one advance – which no one can dispute. It has forced the Administration in Washington, for the first time, to take public notice of the economic distress – the hardship and poverty – which afflicts much of your state.
Last week – for the first time in eight years – the President of the United States felt it necessary to explain his Administration’s attitude toward West Virginia. For the first time in eight years he indicated that the national government might have some real responsibility toward the people of your state, and he attempted to explain how they were meeting that responsibility. These statements were not made voluntarily – out of a free choice, or a new awareness. They were made because they had to be made. They were made because the enormous, intensive national publicity which has been given to your primary had revealed to an entire nation the economic distress – the poverty and want – which Republican indifference and Republican indecision had helped to create in West Virginia. This publicity had revealed a shocking situation – an inexcusable situation – the situation of a courageous, and able, and determined people who had been deprived of a chance to work and a fair chance to share in America’s great abundance. This was a situation which had to be justified – which had to be explained – but it was also a situation which fundamentally could not be explained.
For there is no legitimate explanation for what has happened to much of West Virginia – there is no valid reason or justification – no easy answer. What has happened to West Virginia could have been avoided – and could now be cured – if we had dynamic and creative leadership in Washington – if we had an Administration with real and deep concern about the economic distress of millions of Americans – if we had an Administration which had been able to recapture even a little of the vision and the compassion of the New Deal. In short, West Virginia’s problems could have been solved if we had a Democratic Administration in the White House – and they won’t be solved until we do.
The President, at his press conference, was asked directly about the distribution of surplus foods to West Virginia. He said he had always “assumed” that needy and deserving people were receiving an adequate and varied diet. But there is not – and never has been – any basis for such an assumption, as one look at West Virginia clearly shows. Our President has travelled to Asia and Europe and South America – but never to West Virginia. He has seen the poor and hungry of foreign lands – but he has not seen the poor and hungry of West Virginia. For had he made one such trip – had he seen the faces of undernourished children and the pitiful diet of their hungry parents – he would not have assumed that all was right with West Virginia – and perhaps he would have done something about it.
For the harsh fact of the matter is that the more than quarter of a million West Virginians who must struggle for existence on government surplus foods do not get a living diet – they suffer from malnutrition and hunger. The children – the youth of the richest and most abundant country on earth – are deprived of their birthright of a sound body. The men and women have seen their health ruined and their hopes shattered. And nothing more clearly reveals the starkness of this condition than the Administration’s own figures.
The White House proudly proclaimed that last year it had distributed more than five and one-half million dollars in food surpluses to the people of West Virginia. But this means that every man, woman and child in the program received little more than twenty dollars worth of food for the entire year – twenty dollars worth of flour, corn-meal, rice and – on special occasions – a little lard, dried milk and eggs. These statistics are not an occasion for pride. Twenty dollars worth of this limited variety of food is not enough to maintain health or build strong bodies. Twenty dollars does not drive off hunger or disease. Twenty dollars is a shocking figure – a figure which must be changed – and a figure which the next Democratic Administration will change.
The White House – in listing the help it was giving to West Virginia – did not restrict itself to food distribution. It proudly listed the social security payments which the government had made to the retired, the disabled, and the surviving widows and children in your state.
But social security is not a program of Administration “assistance.” Your social security payments do not come as a favor or a handout from Washington. They have been earned by every man and woman in the program. They are merely a repayment of the contributions which have been made to the social security trust fund out of long years of productive labor. You are entitled to these benefits – you have worked for them – and no Administration in Washington, especially this one, is entitled to credit for returning to you what is rightfully yours.
But if the White House wants to take credit for social security – let’s give it the credit it deserves – credit for hampering, opposing and vetoing every effort to modernize our social security law and bring it into line with today’s high cost of living. Social security was first conceived as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s great social welfare program. It was expanded and broadened under successive Democratic Administrations. But in the past eight years under a Republican Administration all advances in social security have ground to a halt – all progress has ended. Today the average social security recipient in West Virginia has an average income of $829 a year – an income which does not permit our older citizens to live out their later years in decency and health. Instead of taking credit for a Democratic program – the Administration should be working to expand that program – so that social security’s promise of a dignified old age can become a reality for every American. And if they don’t do it – we Democrats will.
These two pitiful programs – a health-destroying plan of food distribution, and social security benefits which represent a failure of government responsibility – these are your government’s answers to the economic distress of West Virginia. This is what the White House means when it concludes that “the facts are that very material assistance has been given to the people of West Virginia.” This is all the Administration has to say when it is forced to say something about West Virginia. And this is why we need a Democratic Administration in the White House.
For a Democratic Administration – an Administration which is responsive to the vital needs and hopes of all Americans – an Administration which realizes that the strength of America depends on the strength of its people – an Administration in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal – will have a very different answer to your call for help. We will answer not only with expanded food surplus programs or improved social security – although those are important – but with economic aids and with technical assistance that will put your State’s economy back on its feet and bring new industry with new jobs and new incomes to West Virginia.
With such a program we Democrats will have an answer ready when – eight years from now – we too are asked: “What have you done for West Virginia?” We will give that answer firmly, proudly and without hesitation. We will answer that “we have restored to West Virginia its share of the American dream – the opportunity to achieve a good life under freedom for all its people.”