Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at Charleston, West Virginia, April 11, 1960

For a longtime, I have believed that any Presidential candidate should be prepared to face the judgment of the presidential primaries. Today, I want to add to that: Any man who wants to be President should come to West Virginia. He should look squarely at the troubled face of West Virginia. And he should tell you, honestly and directly, what he proposes to do about the problems you have here.

These are national problems. West Virginia is not alone in its time of troubles. Under the gloss of our national prosperity, there are dark areas of hardship and economic dislocation all over our country. But nowhere are the dislocations more widespread, and nowhere have the hardships endured longer than in West Virginia.

When nearly a third of the men of Beckley are without work to support their families; when children in Fayette County depend on school lunches for a decent meal; when coal mines are closed down, and farms are without a future, and your young people must leave the state to find jobs – when these things can happen in the middle of our fat and complacent national prosperity, they stand as a bitter indictment of our national policies and our national leadership.

No community is an island, cut off from the rest of America. What happens in West Virginia happens to all of us. And America has failed in its responsibilities to you. This is a fact, a fact of terrible urgency and a challenge to the leadership of the next President of the United States.

I am keenly aware of this failure of our national performance. My own home state, like yours, has had its time of troubles. Massachusetts is fighting, as you are, to cope with drastic economic changes in many of its communities to hold the industries it has and find new ones to replace those we lose, trying to find work for the jobless and protect their families against want. My years as a Senator have been deeply committed to finding national answers to the problems of these hard hit communities, for Massachusetts, for West Virginia, and for other states across the country.

I know what you face here. I know that something must be done, that something can be done. And I know that it is not being done by the present Administration in Washington.

It would be foolish and politically irresponsible to say that this Administration is indifferent to trouble and suffering. Human decency doesn’t wear a party label. But it is results, not sentiments that matter – good intentions without deeds won’t feed hungry children.

We have a President who expresses concern over the areas of economic depression in this country – but says we can’t afford to deal with them; who deplores the inadequate benefits paid the unemployed in many states – but won’t admit to a national responsibility; who balances his budget at the expense of the school lunch program and can’t find a way to bring surplus, wasting food to the hungry people who need it.

There is no point in going on with this sad record. But there’s a lot of point in asking why the record is so sad. I say again, that it is not a result of callous indifference. But as a matter of practical fact, I think it is something worse that indifference. It is a stark failure of leadership and. For a nation, that is a far worse peril.

This is an Administration imprisoned in outworn theories – so confused and smothered in its own theories that it has lost touch with reality. All of its theories seem to lead, over and over, to the same sad conclusion – that this great, rich, powerful nation is helpless to act against national problems. This great nation is hopelessly bound by a web of theoretical difficulties and frustrations. The result is paralysis of a leadership that, confronted with mines closed down and men out of work, has lost the capacity for practical, commonsense decision.

The answer to this paralysis that can only answer needs with theories and that offers vetoes in place of programs is an answer Franklin Roosevelt gave, when the theorists of the 1930s told him he couldn’t act against the problems of the depression: “We are faced with a condition, not a theory,” Roosevelt said. And that is still the answer. What is happening in West Virginia is a condition, not a theory.

I thought of this last year when we were fighting on the Senate floor for an area development bill to set the wheels of your idle factories back in motion. I thought of it when the President vetoed that bill. One of your Senators told us then that there is more hardship, hunger and privation in West Virginia than there was during the depths of the depression in the 1930s.

Yet there is unfortunately, a difference between today and the 1930s. We have a President now who would leave to the states, or to private action, or to anyone except the nation, the most obvious national responsibilities. But in the 1930s we had a President, Franklin Roosevelt, who took national leadership to meet and lick the depression.

We have a President now who can see only the demands of a balanced budget. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt could see the needs of a third of a nation ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed – and he could respond to them.

Where a quarter-century ago a third of a nation was in need, today it is less than a tenth of our people we are asked to help. To provide that help, our nation is (?) times as rich/as we were 25 years ago.

Yet today we are told that the richest country on earth can’t afford to help its own.

This is absurd. It is worse than absurd. It is bankruptcy of moral responsibility, of political courage, and of plain, practical leadership. It is the same illusion of helplessness and impotence that is sapping our strength and our leadership in every area of public policy – in foreign affairs and in national defense as well as in domestic policy.

The fault does not lie in the American people. They are as resourceful and determined as ever. The fault does not lie in understanding – we know what we should do, and we have the means to do it. The fault lies, to put it bluntly and simply, in a national leadership that just will not summon the energy to act – a leadership that can decide only to veto.

Now I know that it is all very well to talk about action. I know that talk is cheap. In fact, it seems to be about the only thing this Administration can afford. But since I assert the responsibility of leadership, it is up to me to say specifically and concretely what I propose that we do.

There are clear and definite steps that the national government can and should take to help communities and families that are bearing the brunt of economic dislocation and depression.

Obviously, there are two parts to the job. The first is to meet the immediate needs that are so terrible and real in parts of West Virginia. Jobless men and hungry families can’t wait for long run plans to work out – they want to eat every day, not just in the long run.

But second, while we are meeting these immediate needs, we must set to work on permanent solutions to the deep rooted causes of these economic troubles. The depression in West Virginia – and it is just that – has gone on far too long. When a man is bleeding, you first stop the flow of blood. But you also go on to heal his wound. We need to act against the day; we must act also against the years ahead.

Here are some clear, practical steps the national government should take to help you in your urgent, immediate difficulties:

First, we should set national minimum standards for unemployment benefits, adequate to the economic catastrophe that long term job loss means to a man with a family. In West Virginia, I have heard of men trying to support eight children on $50 a month; unemployment benefits here are lower, compared to wages, than they were 20 years ago. There is only one practical way to [meet] this problem. I am sponsoring legislation right now, against Administration opposition, to set Federal Standards for unemployment benefits. We don’t propose to tell any state how much they can pay. But we do propose to set a floor of protection on beneath every American out of a job.

Second, we can use our huge food surpluses for their only sensible purpose – to feed hungry people. We can demand that the Secretary of Agriculture use the food stamp plan that Congress has provided – and if he won’t, we can get an Administration that will. I am convinced that, at very little cost, we can make far better use of our surpluses and provide far more help to the people that need them. We can revive the school lunch program that is slowly being strangled by the budgeteers. In West Virginia, the need for school lunches is acute. There are schools that must turn down hundreds of children who need free lunches. Yet in the past few years, the Federal contribution per lunch has been cut almost in half – from nine cents to 5 or 6 cents. This is not economy, it is economic theory run wild.

Third, we can channel a large share of our huge Federal spending into West Virginia. There are three large ordnance plants in West Virginia, every one closed down. West Virginia gets less dollar benefits from defense installations than any state in the Union.

In the 1958 recession, the Administration was persuaded to step up defense spending. Is there some theory that prevents a much lesser step in West Virginia in 1960 than we took in 1958 nationwide?

Fourth, there are a wide range of national programs that should be enacted for benefit of the whole country and which will help directly to meet West Virginia’s immediate needs. I think of medical insurance for social security pensioners, Federal aid for schools, and improvements in social security and public assistance as examples.

Everyone of these steps should be taken on its own merits. Everyone is needed in West Virginia. Everyone is a program I have supported and worked for in Congress – not just in election year but year after year. And every one is resisted by an Administration that meets conditions with theories, that can only lament problems but provides no leadership to solve them.

Important as they are, these steps are not enough. Unemployment checks are no substitute for a job. School lunches aren’t breakfast or dinner. – West Virginians, I am sure, still approve of eating three times a day.

For the long run, West Virginia wants customers for its coal mines, business for its factories, new industries for its future. In many respects, your state has been a victim of progress. It is time you became full partners in our national prosperity. And there should be national leadership, along with the local leadership you are providing, to achieve that partnership in prosperity.

First, we should have a national area development program to help rebuild the economies of hardhit communities. As far back as 1956, I was the author of the first such program to pass the Senate. When we did get a similar bill to the President last year, as you know, he vetoed it. We are now trying to write a veto-proof – and theory-proof – bill that will satisfy his theories and still be of practical help to you. All we propose is a businesslike approach to bringing new industries and new jobs into your towns. That means financial assistance and loans for the community facilities and plants that will bring in industries. It means assistance for retraining workers, and to support their families during the period of dislocation and adjustment to change. It simply means applying the proven skills and techniques that we know, from experience, can help you do the job. It is not charity, not a favor. It is just a sound natural investment in your future.

Important as area development is, it is just one part of what should be a larger, revitalized national policy.

My second point, and my overriding conviction, is our need for rededication to the goal of a vigorous and growing American economy. In the past few years, in spite of the claims of Administration press agents, our economy has faltered. It is below the average of the past, far below our present and future capabilities.

America has a choice to make. We can go along with the timid retreat that has characterized this Administration: refusing to aim high because high goals carry a challenge with them; letting the cycle of recession and recovery dominate us because we are afraid to master it; accepting the consequences of a spotty economic and persisting unemployment because we are hesitant to invest in growth.

Or we can exercise energetic and purposeful national leadership in a deliberate policy of economic growth. Obviously, if we seek high goals, we must make an investment and venture something on our own future. I believe that we have the means and the courage to do so. We can have an expanding economy, a high and stable level of employment, and we can do it without inflation. That calls for effective tax reform to encourage productive enterprise and to discourage the nonproductive pursuit of tax loopholes; it means tax reform to end the erosion of the tax system, and prevent a progressive shift of the tax burden on to those least able to pay. It means using the massive fiscal and monetary powers of the Federal Government to combat recession and to stimulate growth.

I don’t intend to inflict an economic lecture on you. But I completely believe that our economic performance has paid the price of timid leadership and that, if we will act wisely and energetically, we can have economic growth adequate to the needs of this growing nation.

For you in West Virginia, this is of crucial importance. You need expanding markets and new industries and new job opportunities. They can only come from a growing American economy. To move industries from one state to another without real growth, as you know from experience, solves no problems; it just transfers them across state lines. In each recent recession, West Virginia has gone down farther, and come back slower. These are the fruits of an over-cautious standpat national policy.

A policy for national economic growth is a policy for West Virginia. This is nowhere truer than on this third point about which I want to talk briefly – a subject crucially important to you because it involves your richest resource and your most painful problem – coal.

It would be foolish to tell you there is any single, easy formula for a prosperous coal industry. But I can tell you there is no formula, no solution that does not require as its basis a prosperous, growing American economy. For one thing, growth means new industries and every new industry in West Virginia is part of the answer to the problem of coal. But coal is to rich a resource and too important to your lives, to end the answer there. In any case, a new industry in Wheeling is no solution to hard times in McDowell County.

The solution for coal must lie in new and expanding markets. We all know that mechanization in the mines has meant more production with fewer miners. And we know that total demand hasn’t grown fast enough to accommodate your increased productivity. In a growing economy, with research opening new usefulness for coal, that trend can be reversed. The experts tell me that in twenty years, the demand for coal can be doubled or tripled. But this is a challenge, not a guarantee. The mine workers union and the industry are doing an impressive and splendid job in getting together to meet this challenge. New horizons for coal are in sight – from homeheating by coal-generated electricity through heatpumps to pioneering developments in coal chemistry. Your union and your industry deserve the sympathy, the understanding, and the help of the Federal Government in this enterprise.

Research is an obvious area for a useful Government contribution. You probably know that the coal research bill we passed last year ran into some more Administration theories and so, was vetoed. We are trying again this year for a bill that will meet Administration theories as well as your need, and I think we will succeed. This should be only a first step in continuing close cooperation of union, industry and government – for coal is too important a national resource for continued national neglect.

The coal industry is an example of the problems raised by new technology and by automation. It is too late now to take the steps we should have taken a decade ago to prepare for this problem. But automation will continue to loom large in our future, in the economy generally as well as in coal. The national government has a responsibility, and it is not now meeting it, to help to plan and program progress to avoid further dislocations and lost jobs. Human waste and human suffering that can come from rapid technological change. What happened in coal need not happen again anywhere. Through area development programs, long range planning, and Government-union-industry cooperation, we can provide against dislocation and job loss, retrain workers, schedule change to avoid upheavals.

These are concrete ways in which we can avoid in the future the problems of your past and your present. I am confident that, if we apply our intelligence and our energies to shape the kind of growing economy we are capable of, your coal industry and your communities will share in the benefits of that growth.

I have listed here 7 national steps, some large, some small, that point the path to a more prosperous future for West Virginia. None of these policies and goals I have set forth is impossible or impractical. They aren’t a panacea for anything. They are simply the kind of practical actions we should long since have been taking. They are the kind of national cooperation you should be able to expect to support your local efforts.

Helping one another is an old American tradition, as old as the frontier custom of neighbors pitching in to help the new settler put up his home. What Ben Franklin said when the thirteen colonies were trying to form a union is still a good principle today: if we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately.

This kind of national help is a supplement, not a substitute for what you are doing for yourselves. I know that, and I know you would not want it otherwise. West Virginia is a proud state, with a proud record of fighting back against its troubles. The help I propose through an area development program will simply strengthen the efforts of your community programs to develop industry – such groups as the Big Eight Development Association formed by eight of your counties, the business development corporation in Beckley, the group that has already successfully brought several industries to Elkins. I know of your new aluminum plant and new chemical plants. I have seen demonstrations of the determination of West Virginians to help themselves; I have heard you explore your potential – ideas to promote your tourist industry, a national park in the New River Gorge, plans for new industries based on your great timber resources – these are only a few of your possibilities, so I know the extent of your determination and your purpose to help yourselves. It is only common sense for the rest of us – for all the American people – to help you get the wheels of your industries turning. In the long run, we all gain from a prosperous West Virginia.

Above all, I know that you have in West Virginia what we need in our national leadership – hope, and determination, and a conviction that we can do what we have to do to solve our problems. And theoretical objections are not going to stop us.

Let me close with just one brief story that illustrates, I think, everything I have been talking about. In our efforts to establish reasonable federal standards for unemployment benefits, we are constantly opposed by theorists who argue that this subject must be left strictly to the states. These same theorists go back to their own states, and there they argue that the state mustn’t improve unemployment benefits because that will drive industry into a cheaper state. So theory ties itself into a beautiful knot, nothing gets done, and your unemployment checks get more and more inadequate.

Yet obviously, if we avoid these thickets of theory the answer is simple. Only federal standards can set a decent level of benefits to prevent this competition between states which is destroying the system and eroding the rights of workers.

Now what shall we choose? Shall we let theorists reduce us to paralysis, proving that we can’t do what needs doing? Or shall we use the leadership of the national government for practical, necessary national purposes? That choice, multiplied over and over, is the choice of this election year – the choice between national leadership and national inertia. The choice is up to you.

Source: David F. Powers Personal Papers, Box 33, "Economic Issues, Charleston, WV, 11 April 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.