WASHINGTON, March 9 — John T. Kramer, a legal scholar and champion of civil rights who helped shape the nation's poverty laws, died on Wednesday at his home in New Orleans. He was 68.
The cause was complications of diabetes, his wife, Sandra, said.
Mr. Kramer began his career in public policy in 1965, when he became counsel to Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Democrat of New York, on the House Committee on Education and Labor. But it was as executive director of the National Council on Hunger and Malnutrition in the 1960's and 1970's that he made some of his most lasting contributions, drafting legislation that expanded the food stamp program and provided low-income students with free and reduced-price meals.
Mr. Kramer was also special counsel for Representative Thomas S. Foley, Democrat of Washington, from 1975 to 1986, when he was the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture and the majority whip. Mr. Foley later became the speaker of the House.
"John Kramer was committed to using the law and public policy to advance those who found themselves in difficult or deprived circumstances," Mr. Foley said. "Millions of people are indebted to him who would not likely know his name."
Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group, said Mr. Kramer's "fingerprints were everywhere in Washington" because of his ability to "design the big vision and the details of legislation."
"He was widely recognized as a master strategist in poverty policy and in seeking to reduce poverty, particularly in the area of food assistance," Mr. Greenstein said. "The seam running through all of his work, though, was a deep commitment to civil rights."
Mr. Kramer was the founding chairman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and remained chairman until 2002, when he became vice chairman of the board.
As dean of the Tulane University Law School from 1986 to 1996, he placed the school in the forefront of training students to further the public interest by making community service mandatory for graduation, the first program of its kind in the nation, and expanding the number of free legal clinics at which students provide counsel to the poor.
Mr. Kramer, who graduated from Harvard University in 1958 and Harvard Law School in 1962, was an associate dean at Georgetown law school for 10 years before taking the job at Tulane. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge University and clerked for Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In addition to his wife, Sandra Scarbrough, survivors include three sons, Dr. Christopher, of Charlottesville, Va., Daniel, of New York City, and Andrew L., of New Orleans; a stepson, Gladstone N. Jones III of New Orleans and New York City; a sister, Alison Kramer Buck of Paris; a stepbrother, Edward Rosenthal of New York City and White Plains; and five grandchildren.