Excerpts From Remarks Delivered Before The National Advisory Committee of Farm Labor

Washington, DC | May 18, 1964

Today, prosperous America has the greatest chance of any nation in the history of the world to wipe out poverty...This is a goal that can be shared by every American. There is room for everyone on the battlefield because it is going to take all the compassion and initiative we can muster to free the prisoners of poverty.

Today, prosperous America has the greatest chance of any nation in the history of the world to wipe out poverty.

We have declared war on poverty, and are fortunate to start that war during a period of justifiable confidence and pride - in a system that has helped make us the most powerful, the most comfortable, and the most free nation in history.

Now, feeling our oats, we are out to prove that the spirit and techniques of this American system can satisfy the needs of all of our citizens. This is a goal that can be shared by every American. There is room for everyone on the battlefield because it is going to take all the compassion and initiative we can muster to free the prisoners of poverty.

America can fight this war now because the enemy has been sighted. But if it hadn't been for the efforts of people like A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Frank Graham, Fay Bennett, Father James Vizzard, Senator "Pete" Williams, and many others, poverty might very well have remained in hiding. If it hadn't been for writers like Mike Harrington and Paul Jacobs, "comfortable America "might never have spotted “the other America."

The people in this room didn't have to read the books. All of you, and the organizations you represent, have been fighting the poverty battle for years, virtually alone. Certainly you know the facts about rural poverty as well as any group in this country. But these facts require constant repetition if all the people are to grasp the full scope of the job before us.

What are the facts?

One out of every three rural families lives with an income of less than $3,000 a year. Almost half of all our poor live in rural areas and more than half the rural poor live in the South. Rural underemployment amounts to the equivalent of four million unemployed, and that figure may be doubled within the next decade. Those are just some of the statistical, economic facts. The faces of poverty are facts, too-. The resigned face of a dirt farmer, unskilled at anything except agriculture -- and behind the time seven in that -- watching his family's welfare deteriorate like his land.

The weathered face of a migrant worker, living with his family in a series of one-room shacks, his children tramping along behind him without shoes and without schooling.

The baffled, bitter face of a young Negro trapped behind the barriers of his rural ghetto, a prison within the prison of poverty. The sad and bewildered face of a coal miner, once a good provider, now displaced by a machine, having to face his wife and children with his self-respect chipped away a little more each day.

Poverty is reflected everywhere in these areas. Rural America has almost three times the proportion of dilapidated and substandard houses that urban America has. Rural children get one-third less medical service than children in and near cities; the mortality rate of rural children is 50 per cent higher than in urban areas. Clinic and social services are almost totally lacking.

The rural schools are weakest and the drop out rates highest. There are dirt roads instead of highways in the rural areas and they are sometimes impassable. What this means in human terms is that water comes through the roof when it rains, but is only available up the road when you want it to drink; that a Soloman's choice must be made among four children to decide who goes to school because there is only money for one pair of shoes.

Within the rural areas are found one of the major "sub-cultures" of poverty -- the small farm. Sixteen percent of America n s 30 million poor live on farms. More than 40 percent of all farm families are poor. More than 80 percent of non-white farmers live in poverty, although the overwhelming majority of poor farm families are white.

Among these poverty-stricken farm families are about one million families who have been called "boxed in." They are headed by a person so handicapped by age, or lack of education, or physical disability, or a combination of all three, that the family must "make it" where they are, or they wont make it at all.

The breadwinners of these 1 million farm families have few choices open to them, and what choices there are only spell more poverty and more suffering. Right now there is little help available to these families from any source. The FHA is prohibited by law from providing credit to families who have no repayment base or prospects. So the one government agency most active in helping low income farm families is unable to help those who need it most -- the one million who cannot avoid the steel trap of poverty.

The provisions 'under Title III of the Economic Opportunity Act will help to eliminate this painful paradox. Grants would be combined with loans and intensive technical assistance to raise the sights and the opportunities of impoverished rural families.

The Equal Opportunity Act also proposes a program of loans and grants to state and local non-profit organizations for the purchase and resale of farmland to low-income family farmers who are being pushed out of the race for land by the giants of agriculture and real estate.

The bill proposes that credit and technical assistance be extended to organize and finance small cooperatives made up mostly of low-income rural families, or to strengthen co-ops already in existence.

Title III, of course, attacks only one aspect of the rural problem. Our Bill proposes additional legislation which would have a direct impact on rural poverty. For example, under Title I we request permission to establish a Job Corps. Membership in this Corps is open to any manor woman from 16 to 22. We hope to enroll 100,000. Each will receive $50 a month, - but, - they can allot $25 per month to their families. If they allot the $25, we will match that $25 so that each Job Corps Trainee could send home $50 a month--$600 a year.

Well, you say, $600 isn’t much in affluent America. I agree with you. But if your total family income last year was $1800, $600 is a 33 1/3% net increase in your financial situation. That’s a big boost -- that may be the first glimmer of hope for many a rural family -- that might bean inspiration to other boys and girls in the family and nearby to join the Job Corps, advance themselves and help their mothers and fathers at the same time.

Yes, this $600 a year could be a direct "shot in the arm to many a poverty-stricken rural family. Title I will also reach 340,000 additional young men and women between 16 and 22 years of age. It will give them jobs in their own home towns, right where they are and these jobs will not only supply financial assistance to the young people involved, but they will relieve parents of the necessity of supporting these young people. These jobs will give parents a hope for their children, -- a hope which many of these same parents had long ago despair of.

Title II will help stimulate and support action programs to meet a rural community’s most urgent needs in health, education, and other areas. Educational centers will be started in rural as well as in urban locations. Conservation corps will enroll not only the children of the city slum, jut also rural youths who have dropped out of school and are drifting without aims or means. The program of jobs for potential school dropouts will give them a little income and stability to encourage them to remain in school.

The importance of providing decent education for the children of poor farm families cannot be over emphasized, especially when the families live in an environment that offers no incentives for education. A few days ago, the Department of Agriculture released a study of education among farm youngsters. Listen to these tragic facts. In 1962, out of 1.3 million farm youths, 400,000 already had dropped out of school, the overwhelming majority with out any high school education at all. Only one in three farm youths goes to college, compared with nearly half our urban youngsters.

What are fertile ground could there be for action programs under Title I and Title II?

There are other points of attack in the rural poverty problem. Such measures as the wheat-cotton bill, which prevent the kill of price drops that push small farmers to the wall are part of the war on poverty too. And what about farm labor? What about the farm worker trying to get a decent living wage?

American farm workers are the most underprivileged group in the Nation’s entire labor force. The average earnings of agricultural workers are barely over $1,000a year from all sources, farm and non-farm. Farm workers are excluded from minimum wage,unemployment insurance and most State workmen's compensation laws. In addition, they are excluded from legislation which protects the right of workers to organize into unions and bargain with their employers.

Each year, approximately 500,000 American farm workers are forced to migrate in order to avoid either low wages or unemployment at home. While on the road, they are under-employed, their wages are low, their housing is poor, they lack health and welfare services, and in some case seven safe vehicles for transportation. The children of migrants are denied the benefits of education, because they lead nomadic lives, and because they are needed in the fields.

America's migrants, because they are constantly on the move are the hardest of the American poor to reach. When they settle down in cities and towns, they remain poor, but at least become eligible for welfare.

In this day of concentrated farm ownership and mechanized agriculture, when only a small per cent of all farms hire the vast majority of all farm labor, it makes no sense at all to exclude farm workers from the protection of labor and social legislation that have benefited other workers for over a quarter of a century. The time has come when America should make every effort to eliminate a farm labor system that is based on poverty and destitution. Surely it is not beyond our resources nor our ingenuity to include, in our war against poverty, these always "excluded" Americans.

Increasing the wages and improving the working conditions of farm workers is not going to hurt the family farmer; on the contrary, it may help him. If a large grower or processing corporation is able to obtain an unlimited quantity of labor for low wages, then the work performed by a farm operator and the members of his family on a small, family farm becomes of equally low value. The substandard wages paid on the huge corporate farms become the standard of income for self-employed farmers who must compete in the same markets.

There is another way of attacking the migrant labor problem under the Economic Opportunities Act. The Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, under Title VI, could refer volunteers -- upon request of the Governors -to work in meeting the health and education needs of migrants and their families.

What I have described to you tonight is part of what has been called the anti-poverty package. It is not the whole war, of course. But his package alone will create a billion dollars worth of new programs and incentives. And it will produce these results in its first year of operations:

  1. A 450 million dollar program to train and place over 400,000 young men and women -- including thousands of youths from the farms of America -- to help them escape from the poverty into which they were born.
  2. 315 million dollars worth of support for community action projects -- urban as well as rural -- to help local groups develop those programs which will have the greatest meaning for the particular community.
  3. Another $50 million to carry out Title III programs for rural America alone.
  4. $150 million for training and jobs for unemployed parents -- in rural and urban areas.

But what we do under this new authority cannot be measured by numbers alone.

Take the provision in Title III, for example. For years, groups like yours have recommended that we try to make our very poorest farm families self-sufficient. Now we have the means to do it. We are confident it will work. And when it proves itself, we will do more.

We are going to enlist the good faith, the good heart of America in this program. Thousands of volunteers will be recruited to help carry it out. Many of these volunteers will come from the farms -- and go the farms. This is an exciting promise of the poverty program, as it has already proven exciting in the Peace Corps.

So the poverty program is not to be measured by cold statistics alone -- although the statistics above are impressive. Instead, it must be measured primarily by the commitment it implies -- a commitment by the richest nation of the world to give all of its citizens a chance to enjoy its riches.

I have been talking tonight, not about Utopia, but America -- a land of opportunity, not a paradise of plenty. The American experience is rooted in realism. We have never sought to create a blissful paternalistic society in which all of a man's needs would be provided for from birth. Historically and traditionally our dictum has been: give a man liberty and opportunity and he will go as far as his ability will allow.

The objective of the War Against Poverty is to liberate 35 million Americans from the cycle of poverty, and give them the opportunity to advance. For economic reasons, for moral reasons, for human reasons -- for every reason known to reasonable men -- we must and will win that war.