Great Depression and New Deal

For millions of American children and teens the Great Depression brought years of hardship and heartache. At a time of economic distress and double digit unemployment, when, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in his second inaugural address, "one-third" of the nation was "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," the young bore a disproportionate burden of poverty. The Relief Census of 1933 found that although youths under sixteen years of age represented only 31 percent of the U.S. population they constituted 42 percent of all of the poverty-stricken Americans who became relief recipients.

The human toll that lay beneath these statistics can be gleaned from the thousands of letters that low income youths sent to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the Depression. The letters came from despondent children and teens, many of whom wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt asking her for the shoes, clothing, books, and transportation they so badly needed to attend school. This correspondence underscores the fact that initially the economic crisis of the Great Depression was an educational crisis as well. Diminishing tax revenues closed some 20,000 schools in rural America in 1934 and shortened school terms. The letters also tell of inadequate access to medical and dental care, constricted opportunities for recreation, and the psychological burdens the young experienced in homes where adults had been thrown out of work and into poverty. In such homes, as the studies of social scientists Mirra Komarovsky and Glenn H. Elder Jr. confirm, paternal authority often declined as fathers proved unable to play the traditional role of breadwinner, and children, denied elements of a protected childhood, assumed more adult-like roles in family management and support. These conditions led Americans to speak of the "youth crisis" of the 1930s in which material deprivation and limited educational and employment opportunities threatened the future of the younger generation –a crisis symbolized by the falling marriage and birth rates and the soaring youth unemployment rates during the early Depression years.

New Deal liberals, concerned intellectuals, and student activists did much to call public attention to this youth crisis. The New Deal's Farm Security Administration funded such compassionate photographers as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans whose memorable images documented the plight of impoverished children. Eleanor Roosevelt used her daily newspaper columns and weekly radio addresses to highlight youth issues and urged an expanded federal role in

Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph of a destitute migrant worker and her children in California has become one of the most enduring images of the Great Depression. According to Lange, at the time this picture was taken, this woman, her husband, and their seven children had been living for days on frozen vegetables and some birds that the children had killed. .

assisting the Depression's youngest victims. The left-wing student and youth protest movements of the 1930s founded national organizations, such as the American Youth Congress and the American Student Union, championing federal aid to needy students and to education and led the first national youth marches on Washington.

New Deal liberals did far more than talk about the youth crisis; they acted to ameliorate it through a historic expansion of federal aid to youth and education. From 1933 to 1939 New Deal funds assisted 70 percent of all new school construction and prevented thousands of school closings by coming up with emergency funds to pay teachers. In Arkansas, for example, such aid stopped the closing of some 4,000 schools. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) made nursery school accessible to workers for the first time, establishing almost 3,000 free nursery schools in 1933 and 1934. By the end of the Depression the WPA had provided more than a billion free school lunches to needy students. Work study jobs provided by the National Youth Administration (NYA) enabled more than two million low income students to continue their education and funded 2.6 million jobs for out-of-school youths, while the Civilian Conservation Corps also provided temporary work relief and training for male teens. Even adult-centered relief agencies indirectly aided youth, as parents funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration– though still poor–were better able to provide their children with the basic necessities of life.

This New Deal funding helped the United States to bounce back from the educational crisis of the early Depression years. Thanks in part to federal aid to students, high school enrollments rose from 4,399,422 at the opening of the Depression to 6,545,991 by the end of the 1930s. At the college level, NYA funds helped low income students stay in school by providing 12 percent of the college population with work-study jobs. Thus after a decline in enrollments from 1932 through 1934, college enrollment increased during the second half of the 1930s, so that in 1939 enrollment stood at 1.3 million, exceeding the pre-Depression peak of 1.1 million.

Beyond these emergency measures the New Deal enacted youth welfare legislation whose impact would endure far beyond the 1930s. The New Deal launched the AID TO DEPENDENT CHILDREN (ADC) program as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which would become the central vehicle by which the welfare state provided aid to needy children. Title V of the Social Security Act established federal aid to the states to expand programs for neglected and abused children. With its passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 the New Deal realized another long-term goal of Progressives, the outlawing of many forms of CHILD LABOR.

While historic in their expansion of the federal role in promoting child welfare, the ADC and the child labor ban had problems in both design and implementation which delayed and in some cases blocked their assistance to children. Traditions of localism and states' rights combined with budgetary constraints to delay the participation of southern states in the ADC, so that states such as Mississippi and Kentucky did not join in this child aid program until the 1940s. And southern states tended to apply standards in a racially discriminatory manner, denying aid to mothers of dependent children (especially in black families) when they deemed them "morally deficient." The child labor ban did not apply to some of the most exploitative fields where the young worked, including agriculture and the street trades.

The liberal reformist ethos of the 1930s affected child rearing and educational discourse. In Babies Are Human Beings: An Interpretation (1938), a popular child-rearing book by C. Andrews Aldrich and Mary M. Aldrich, parents were urged to heed the emotional needs of their children, to display affection towards them and provide them with security in a changing world. This was a warmer and more child-centered approach than the behaviorist parenting guides that had proven so influential in the 1920s. Child-centered pedagogy also made some headway, as is evidenced by the fact that the Progressive Education Association (PEA)–the leading national organization devoted to promoting JOHN DEWEY's educational vision– reached its zenith in terms of both membership and influence during the 1930s. With capitalism faltering, some educators leaned left, following George S. Counts and the "Social Frontiers" thinkers, advocating social reconstructionism: that the educational system should be used to help build a new social system, freed of the inequities that had afflicted the capitalist system.

It seems clear, however, that the progressivism of PEA and the radicalism of the Social Frontiers group had more impact on educational theory than practice. School systems, confronting tight budgets under the leadership of conservative superintendents, tended to cling to traditional modes of teacher-centered pedagogy. The largest study of classroom practice in the 1930s, for example, the Regents Inquiry, which focused on New York, found that most school instruction centered on drill, factual recitation, and textbook memorization, as it had for decades– this despite the fact that New York was the home of John Dewey and the center of progressive education, Teachers College. Historical studies of progressive education by David Tyack and Arthur Zilversmit suggest that it was mostly the affluent districts and schools that experimented with student-centered pedagogy during the Depression decade.

Much like Progressive education, New Deal liberalism promised more than it could deliver to the children of Depression America. The NYA, though assisting millions of needy youths, missed many more than it could help because of budget constraints, often operating programs on a racially segregated basis, and did not outlive the Roosevelt administration (though Lyndon Johnson, an NYA official in the 1930s, would revive the NYA-style federal aid in the Great Society youth programs during his presidency in the 1960s). New Deal dollars assisted impoverished students, but failed to reform the localistic school financing system which allowed for vast inequities between rich and poor school districts. Even the New Deal programs that endured beyond the 1930s, the ADC and child labor ban, though historic steps towards a more humane society, were too limited in scope and funding to protect all American children from the ravages of poverty and child labor. The ambiguity of this record on youth is reflected in the letters that low income children and teens sent to Mrs. Roosevelt in the 1930s, since they show that the New Deal's war on poverty evoked love and loyalty from these needy youths, but also disappointment that the new federal programs failed to meet their personal material needs or to advance their educational opportunities.

Reflecting its emergence in a time of crisis, Depression America's YOUTH CULTURE was more divided than youth culture had been in relatively placid eras. On the one hand, the values of CONSUMER CULTURE and the marketplace, which tended to set the tone of youth culture in more prosperous decades, were still visible in the 1930s. It could be seen among the elitist segment of college youth who argued that only the affluent should attend college. It was even visible in some of the letters that poor children wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt, which were sent to her because of the ways that ADVERTISING and the superior possessions of their friends left them sounding like acquisitive individualists who longed for the material goods enjoyed by the middle class–and so requested consumer goods in a youthful brand of "keeping up with the Joneses." On the other hand, the more cooperative ethos of labor, the Left, and the New Deal itself spread and made possible a challenge to the hold that the competitiveness of the consumer culture had over youth. This egalitarianism was evidenced in the rising degree of youth participation in the labor movement and the creation of the first mass student movement in American history, movements which championed an egalitarian social and political agenda. Prominent on that agenda and in the letters that poor children and teens wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt was accessible education and the left-liberal conviction that a just society was one that afforded all–not just the affluent–access to secondary and even higher education. It was no accident, then, that the generation of politicians who presided over postwar America's age of expanding educational opportunities and the Great Society's federal youth aid programs–from Head Start to the Job Corps–came of age politically in Depression America.

See also: Social Welfare; Youth Activism; Youth Agencies of the New Deal.


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Cohen, Robert, ed. 2002. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters From Children of the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Cohen, Robert. 1993. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929–1941. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elder, Glenn H., Jr. 1999. Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Fass, Paula. 2000. "Children and the New Deal." In Childhood in America, ed. Paula Fass and Mary Ann Mason. New York: New York University Press.

Hawes, Joseph M. 1991. The Children's Rights Movement: A History of Advocacy and Protection. Boston: Twayne.

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Modell, John. 1989. Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920–1975. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reiman, Richard. 1993. The New Deal and American Youth: Ideas and Ideals in a Depression Decade. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Thompson, Kathleen, and Hilary MacAustin. 2001. Children of the Depression. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tyack, David, Robert Lowe, and Elisabeth Hansot. 1984. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.