09/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ted Kennedy's Legacy: "It's Wrong to Have Hungry Children"

Hunger and poor health care in America, especially among children, troubled Ted Kennedy throughout his career. "Let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth," he declared in 1980. If children were hungry or ill, Ted Kennedy wanted to know. And he wanted to do something about it. In November 1983, the week before Thanksgiving, Kennedy conducted a seven-day investigative tour of hunger in America. When he came to the coalfields of eastern Kentucky, he said simply: "It's wrong to have hungry children."

He had already learned about hunger and poverty in Appalachia from his brothers. John F. Kennedy campaigned throughout West Virginia when he ran for President in 1960. After his election, President Kennedy started the food stamp program to address the widespread hunger he witnessed in the coalfields and other areas. In February 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy held hearings in eastern Kentucky on the impact of the anti-poverty programs--although he died before he could act on what he learned.

On November 23, 1983, Ted Kennedy arrived in eastern Kentucky, after visiting Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. Areas of economic distress, he said, were "not confined to one region, but were having a nationwide effect."

Accompanied by long-serving Congressman Carl D. Perkins of Hindman, Kentucky, Senator Kennedy listened to testimony from citizens who lived with hunger and ill-health as a way of life. After talking to a father with seriously ill children, Kennedy observed, "As I understand it, you can't get the health care for your children who are sick. Well, as Congressman Perkins and I can tell you there's no member of Congress that has to worry about that because we've got ourselves a real good health insurance program...And I think if it's good enough for the members of Congress it ought to be good enough for the people of Kentucky. And the rest of this country."

That same day, Senator Kennedy and his son Patrick, now a U.S. Representative from Rhode Island, visited the Mud Creek Clinic in Floyd County, Kentucky. Eula Hall, a community activist who founded the clinic in 1973, welcomed him. After he toured the clinic, she told him, "What we've seen today is just a drop in the bucket. It's everywhere. People are suffering. People are hungry, people are cold and people are sick".

Kennedy concluded his hearings by telling the people he met in eastern Kentucky, "the powerful interests and the wealthy interests have the high powered lobbyists. Their interests are well represented. But what this country is about is caring for each other and that's what I saw here today....The people of Kentucky care about each other. What they need is a helping hand."

Twenty-five years later, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Ted Kennedy declared that health care was the "cause of my lifetime." Eula Hall, his ally and guide in 1983, is now 81 and is still fighting for decent health care for eastern Kentuckians. Learning of his death, Hall reviewed her scrapbook of pictures and news items from the hunger hearings he held in Kentucky. "I'll just have to look to whoever is there who will listen to the problems we have," she told Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Merlene Davis. "You never know till you talk to them and let them know what's not right. Kennedy was one person you could talk to. He is going to be missed."

Video clips from Appalshop Archive. For more information visit