When Kennedy became president in 1961 a great deal was expected of him. He was a young, glamorous, rich and handsome war hero. America was in great need of social reform. 6.5% or 40 million “other Americans” were living below the poverty line. Among these people were the elderly, ethnic minorities, the underpaid and unemployed and people living in poor rural areas. These “other Americans” lived in slums and degraded areas with little or no health care, education and community togetherness. Kennedy’s challenge was to lift these people out of poverty and into a better life.
Kennedy’s domestic priority was economic growth and improvement. Kennedy believed that a strong economy was essential for the USA and it’s position in the world. Kennedy was highly concerned about the rise in unemployment and pursued many policies to combat it and create jobs. The 1962 Trade Expansion Act cut tariffs to encourage trade and encourage trade. It did not cut personal taxes but was able to reduce taxes for businesses under the Revenue Act, which gave $1 billion in tax credits for new equipment and investment. Kennedy also encouraged economic growth through federal spending. He encouraged individual stated to apply for and spend federal grants on housing, education and restoration of community areas. Kennedy believed that his improvements in the economy would help the living standards of the poor. He also encouraged them to spend what they could to create employment opportunities. As a result of this unemployment did start to fall and was down to 5.3% by 1964.
Kennedy increased the minimum wage from $1.00 per hour to $1.25 per hour and extended it to more professions including retail, which was a great help to women. This increase would lift many Americans over the poverty line slightly. It would also cause people to spend more money, the more money people spend the richer the country becomes. It generated a positive economy. Raising the minimum wage also meant that the government received more taxes and had more money to spend on The Cold War and The Space Programme. Kennedy managed to get the Man Power and Development Act passed, which granted $435 million to schools and job-based training, especially for those who had lost their jobs due to automation. 200 0000 people went through this scheme. Kennedy also proposed a $2 billion public works programme but congress rejected it.
Kennedy also passed the Area Redevelopment Act. This Act gave grants and loans for training, development community facilities and help for depressed areas such as Appalachia. The government spent more than $500 million on various schemes and programmes. However this Act was highly criticised for not providing enough jobs considering the money that was spent. Cleaning up slums and adding community facilities such as youth centres, community centres and leisure centres would provide the people in these depressed communities with entertainment and hopefully drive them away from drugs, petty crimes and vandalism. Adding these facilities would also create jobs and tackle the issue of unemployment.
His 1961 proposals for education were passed by the Senate but failed to get through the House. This unsuccessful bill proposed to give federal money to states for scholarships and buildings, with most of the money going to the poorer states. There had been very little spending on schools for 20 years and there was a shortage of teachers but none of this helped the Bill to succeed. People who objected to the cost and federal interference in education opposed the Bill. Kennedy’s largest mistake in trying to pass this Bill was neglecting Catholic Schools. He did this to ensure he was not accused of favouring the Catholic Church, but it backfired on him and ended in him not receiving support from his own church. However, Kennedy was able to get the Higher Education Facilities Act passed in 1963. This act granted $145 million for graduate schools in science, language and engineering. This Act passed successfully because it was more of an extension on NDEA rather than educational reform.
Many of the Acts Kennedy proposed were unsuccessful. Kennedy did manage to pass the Equal Pay Act but it did not cover all women, especially black women in the South, this was done to ensure the votes of Southern White Democrats. It also had no powers of enforcement. The Housing Act created many houses and so the price of housing did drop but in the long run it benefited the property developers much more than the poor. Kenney also proposed health care scheme to be funded by the payroll tax, but it was rejected. Kennedy was more interested in foreign policy and the Space Programme and domestic reforms simply came second on his agenda. The Presidential Commission he set up, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, opposed his Equal Rights Amendment because it was seen as a product of middle class ambition. Kennedy was very conservative in his first term and relied on a larger victory in his second term
However, Kennedy’s failure in domestic policy cannot solely be blamed on him. Kennedy proposed many Bills for the improvement of America’s poorer areas but they were simply rejected by the Senate and the House such as his housing and education policies. Kennedy also had a lack of support in The White House. They disliked him because of his glamour, good looks and his age. Therefore they objected to his ideas and undermined him. He also lacked support from the white house because of his narrow electoral victory. Many Southern Democrats disliked his Northern Liberalism and ambition and Kennedy did nothing to change this perception of him.
Kennedy’s social reforms achieved very little. This was partly due to his keen interest in foreign policy and somewhat lack of interest in social policy. However, his opposition in The White House stifled his success largely. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and so he was only in office for just over two and a half years, a very small period of time to reform a country but more could have been done.