Although much progress has been made in addressing dire poverty and in improving the level of hunger witnessed in Robert Kennedy’s time, we are today still plagued by a growing disparity between the rich and poor both within the United States and throughout the world. The following lesson ideas and resources will allow students to explore the status and impact of poverty in current times.
- Thinking about poverty in the United States, how have conditions improved since Robert Kennedy’s times? What factors might have had a positive influence?
- In what ways is poverty still an issue, both in the United States and throughout the world? To what extent is this so?
- What might be done to address issues of poverty that still exist? How do opinions differ about how best to resolve these issues?
- What is your personal belief and how might you take action to make a positive difference?
You might consider setting the stage for working through some or all of these resources by sharing the following quotes and discussing their relevance to today:
“If we believe that we as Americans are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of the other America. And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens.”
“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil. Government belongs wherever evil needs an adversary and there are people in distress who cannot help themselves.”
“There are children in the United States with bloated bellies and sores of disease on their bodies. … There are children in the United States who eat so little that they fall asleep in school and do not learn. We must act, and we must act now. … These are our responsibilities. If we cannot meet them, we must ask ourselves what kind of a country we really are; we must ask ourselves what we really stand for. We must act–and we must act now. ”
“Only a minority are poor. But poverty affects us all…the facts of poverty and injustice penetrate to every corner, every suburb and every farm in the nation. Their existence is the message of every evening news broadcast, crippling our satisfaction in our ownership of one, or two, or three, of America’s seventy million television sets…
“Our ideal of America is a nation in which justice is done; and therefore, the continued existence of injustice — of unnecessary, inexcusable poverty in this most favored of nations — this knowledge erodes our ideal of America, our basic sense of who and what we are. It is, in the deepest sense of the word, demoralizing — to all of us.”
This speech highlights Robert Kennedy’s impassioned stance on rural poverty. ELA teachers might want to use this lesson to lead students through an analysis of Kennedy’s use of language in this or any other of his speeches.
RFK’s Message Still Matters
The following resources are offered to spark further discussion and study about poverty and food insufficiency in the United States and throughout the world.
Living in a time of ‘moral crisis’, Kennedy passionately called upon youth to become actively engaged in taking on issues and thus creating a more promising future. As part of that process, he encouraged active, constructive and respectful debate and dissent. This, he deeply believed, was “at the very heart of the American process”.
As you work through the following activities, encourage students to discuss and debate any differences of opinion as a means of fostering deeper analysis and understanding.
1.Offer students time to work through the following PBS site that illustrates childhood poverty in America. Ask students to share what conclusions they can draw from the information provided.
2. As the cost of living goes up in urban centers throughout the country, stagnant wages are making it harder for poor and working class families. The debate over minimum wage, the very least employers can legally pay their workers on an hourly basis, has turned into a fight over “living wage”, the amount a worker needs to meet a family’s minimum needs. PBS NewsHour Extra has various resources and lesson plans to learn more about a living wage.
3. Offer students time to work through the following site that includes an interactive map showing hunger in communities across the United States. Discuss the conclusions they draw from the information learned.
Speak Truth to Power: Become inspired by defenders taking action today
Speak Truth To Power, a project of Robert Kennedy Human Rights, is a multi-faceted global initiative that uses the experiences of courageous defenders from around the world to educate students and others about human rights, and urges them to take action. Issues range from slavery and environmental activism to religious self-determination and political participation.
Explore the stories of Kailash Satyarthi.
A leading worldwide advocate for quality public education and the elimination of child labor practices, Kailash Satyarthi won the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his focus on India and Nepal. He is also a Speak Truth To Power Defender.
Satyarthi is India’s lodestar for the abolition of child labor. Since 1980, he has led the rescue of over 75,000 bonded and child slaves in India and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation. Kailash has emancipated thousands of children from bonded labor, a form of slavery where a desperate family typically borrows needed funds from a lender (sums as little as $35) and is forced to hand over a child as surety until the funds can be repaid. But often the money can never be repaid—and the child is sold and resold to different masters. Bonded laborers work in the diamond, stonecutting, manufacturing, and other industries. They are especially prevalent in the carpet export business, where they hand-knot rugs for the U.S. and other markets. Satyarthi rescues children and women from enslavement in the overcrowded, filthy, and isolated factories where conditions are deplorable, with inhuman hours, unsafe workplaces, rampant torture, and sexual assault. Satyarthi has faced false charges and death threats for his work. The constant death threats are taken seriously—two of Satyarthi’s colleagues have been murdered. He has been recognized around the world for his work in abolishing child labor. Satyarthi organized and led two great marches across India to raise awareness about child labor. On the global stage, he has been the architect of the single largest civil society network for the most exploited children, the ‘Global March Against Child Labor’, active in over 140 countries.
Robert Kennedy deeply believed that each individual has the responsibility and capacity to make a positive difference. He said:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
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Become a Defender
Ask students to share examples of what they might already have done – or noticed others doing – to make a difference, even if in small ways. Students can refer to the Become A Defender unit of Speak Truth to Power for inspiration and guidance on how they can take positive action toward fighting injustice.
RFK’s Work Lives On
Robert Kennedy’s unwavering commitment to protecting human rights and opposing attacks on civil liberties is central to his ongoing legacy.
Watch the following clip and Robert Kennedy’s daughters describe how their mother and Robert Kennedy’s wife, Ethel has carries on his work:
To further realize Robert Kennedy’s dream more just and peaceful world, in 1968, Ethel Kennedy, along with Robert Kennedy’s family and friends founded Robert Kennedy Human Rights, one of the foremost human rights’ organizations.