Fifty years ago this week, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. He was just 46 years old and had only just completed the third year of his presidency.
Kennedy was a vigorous, highly intelligent, and forward-looking man who inspired a generation of excitement about the possibilities of government and politics in America. He helped to usher in the modern civil rights and environmental movements. He elevated the science and tech revolutions that inform our culture and economy still today; and he positioned intellectualism and the arts at the highest levels of public policy.
Most important, JFK embedded in the mindset of his generation the essential responsibilities of Democracy; namely, the importance of engaging in public service -- of giving for the common good, rather than taking for selfish, personal gain.
Kennedy, though trained as an historian, had a natural instinct to live and think more in the future than in the past. He was devoted to investing in the America still to be realized, through decided efforts to lift up the prospects of the young, the poor, and newer Americans.
When we think of JFK, we think of the thousands of young Americans that he called to action through the establishment of the Peace Corps. We think of the Freedom Riders, risking their lives in the South through organizing efforts for racial equality that Kennedy ultimately supported through protective executive action. We think of the Latino farm workers and the immigrants who Kennedy's brothers, Robert and Edward, fought to protect as a natural follow-on to JFK's presidential legacy.
In the years since the Kennedy administration ended in tragedy, America has made great strides to live up to its leadership potential in areas ranging from technology and military power to new media and wealth generation.
But despite our vast and spectacular ongoing achievements in these spaces, we find ourselves, fifty years after the JFK assassination, a more unequal society than when Kennedy sat in the White House. Largely as a result, we are now a more troubled and divided nation.
When Kennedy served as president, the top 1 percent of wealthy households in America made 125 times the mean national wealth level. Today, that wealth gap has grown to nearly 200 times.
Moreover, during the Kennedy administration, the federal poverty rate fell dramatically from nearly 23 percent when JFK took office to just above 15 percent when he was assassinated. Today, the federal poverty rate stands at effectively the same level as when Kennedy died; and it has been stuck at that level for now six years running.
Finally, when Kennedy was president, he moved Congress to increase investment in the nation's nascent space program by more than 400 percent -- an investment whose technological innovations helped to fuel major national economic benefits that we are still reaping five decades later. Today, sadly, it is impossible to seriously discuss any prospect of new federal taxation or public investment in R&D and infrastructure development, despite the obvious need for robust movement in each of these areas.
Public debate has been turned on its head over the five decades since JFK's too-short thousand days in office. In the ensuing years, conservative political leaders and pundits have sadly prevailed in their efforts to recast government as a problem plaguing most Americans, rather than an essential part of the solution to our lingering national woes.
Thirty years of government bashing by the right have fundamentally reconfigured America's view of public policy from serving as an essential balancing tool to help the needy to an instrument devoted exclusively to the interests of the wealthy and powerful. This has made America a far different nation than the one Kennedy led.
The America of today is an angrier, poorer, and more toxic nation than the one JFK inspired all those decades ago. It is a nation that is increasingly closed to true opportunity and upward mobility for the majority of its people. And it is a nation that seems increasingly unable and unwilling to invest in its future.
So as America reflects on the Kennedy legacy fifty years following the man's death, it is sad but important to acknowledge that little real progress has been made since JFK's passing relative to closing the gaps in wealth and upward mobility that separate a growing share of our national population.
The struggle continues, much work remains to be done, and America remains in search of its still-largely-unrealized national promise.
But the hope of progress still lives strong beyond JFK. The notion that we can and must do better still inspires us to strive for more. And the American Dream still burns strong in our national conscience.
When we think of JFK, most of us are compelled to think of the possible, to expect the best of ourselves. This is the American spirit that Kennedy both promoted and embodied. This was JFK's vision and intended legacy. It should continue to be ours.
Henry A. J. Ramos is President & CEO of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development and an appointed member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.