Youth Agencies of the New Deal

The GREAT DEPRESSION threatened the futures of tens of millions of Americans, but perhaps none so enduringly as the young. In keeping with the cultural pluralism of the times and the response of the federal government to World War I, Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration attacked the Depression with a host of "alphabet agencies" targeting the group identities of the unemployed. But whether the nature of what was called "the youth problem" lay in the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, by the Depression, or by a world careening toward fascism was a source of dispute. Hence, the youth problem was a catch-all phrase encompassing a variety of concerns. Writers spoke of "boy and girl tramps," the millions of youth doomed to idleness in an industrial world where job prospects required more job training, not less. But many also feared that youth as a whole might lose their faith that the democratic way of life could meet people's basic needs.

The New Deal (1933–1939) wove a tapestry of programs to deal with this danger. Since the late nineteenth century, reformers were certain that charities and government both had to provide the out-of-doors physical activity that nature alone had once provided the young. As the nation aged, so did the youth group that social experts considered endangered, centering first on children and then moving to young people aged eighteen to twenty-five. During the 1930s, when the percentage of female college students rose from 33 percent to 39 percent, the youth problem focused less on physical and more on emotional health, less on athleticism and more on the alienation and lack of purpose felt by the young. Increasingly physical conditioning and exposure to nature seemed a pointless answer to a problem that appeared more psychological than physical, a matter of morale more than morals. The concern for youth, spurred by the fear of the wild and unsupervised youth of the "Roaring Twenties," was redirected as the Depression politicized the attitudes of many young people. With the crisis of capitalism and the popularity of radical ideologies, New Dealers sought ways to preserve the political morale of youth by demonstrating the practical efficacy of an organized and compassionate democracy.

Those federal programs that aided youth before 1935 (the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC) did so incidentally, in the course of helping such causes as college budgets and conservation. While the CCC, for example, aided 250,000 young (eighteen to twenty-five), mostly urban men in 1933, the men worked mostly at bucolic tasks that were noncompetitive with adult labor and ill suited to prepare them for industrialized work. Young men received little from the CCC that was formative, but the nation secured the removal of an incendiary element from the city streets without worsening the adult unemployment problem. In addition, critics wondered why the CCC did not aid women and why the New Deal, in their words, had no "she-she-she." Meanwhile, the National Recovery Administration's efforts to prohibit child labor ran headlong into the unwillingness of children to accept schools that offered no job training as alternatives to work. With state cuts pressuring college budgets, the New Deal responded with ideas for addressing multiple problems in inexpensive ways. By February 1934, the New Deal authorized the FERA to provide one hundred thousand college students the part-time jobs they needed to remain in school. The youth programs of 1933 and 1934 were cobbled together largely to plug the holes in the adult unemployment problem created by other New Deal ventures.

While some officials in the Office of Education favored the use of emergency programs to fund the ideas and aims of traditional educators, relief officials won the struggle in 1935 for the soul of the New Deal youth policy. The resulting National Youth Administration (NYA) was curious. Viewed one way, it appears decentralist; viewed another, it seemed to transform Uncle Sam into a schoolmaster himself. Half of the program extended the FERA student-aid program to high school students as well as college students, aiding 390,000 in the first year. The NYA's innovation was an out-of-school training program that served, in the initial year, 210,000 youth's need for job training. Yet, even here, decentralization was the watchword as all jobs were noncompetitive with private labor and selected and supervised by local leaders. The NYA was signed into law by executive order in 1935 and received $50 million its first year (compared to the CCC's almost $300 million in the same year). The NYA was, until the war, a poor relation of the CCC, receiving a pittance of what Congress earmarked for the "tree army." Not until 1941 did the NYA's funding approach the amount received by the CCC ($119 million and $155 million, respectively).

Yet because of its timing and administrative provenance, the NYA would be far more progressive, reformist, and "youth-centered" than either the CCC or FERA. Led by the liberal Aubrey Williams, the NYA gave charge of a Division of Negro Affairs to Mary McLeod Bethune, head of the New Deal's unofficial "black cabinet," making her then the highest-ranking black American ever to serve in an official government post. Unlike the segregated CCC camps, NYA work projects were frequently integrated. State administrators, in part because of their own relatively young ages, often possessed an energy that endeared them to their charges and served their own future careers well (one was Texas State Director Lyndon B. Johnson).

But the rise of another youth movement, Nazism, also lent urgency and focus to the NYA's work. When FDR gave the agency an extension in 1936, he declared tellingly, "no greater obligation faces the government than to justify the faith of its young people in the fundamental rightness of our democratic institutions." In its later years, many of the NYA programs, from aid to a scattering of Jewish refugee youths to training for national defense work, would be designed to quietly support the cause of democracy in an increasingly dangerous world.

Ironically, the war effort that it served so well from 1939 to 1942 rendered the NYA seemingly obsolete, as jobs and industrial training opportunities mushroomed following Pearl Harbor. The NYA was helpless before Congressional budget-cutters, who saw to it that its funding lapsed in 1943. By then, nearly five million youths (nearly twice as many as were aided through the CCC) had received jobs without which they could not have remained in school or received valuable job training. Although the connection was indirect, the NYA was the first national agency to possess the same federalized approach to both funding and administration that would later characterize the G.I. Bill and the student aid programs of the Great Society and the present. In a sense, it was historically fitting that the New Deal's most lasting service to young people would be largely forgotten by the generation that had received so much from it, and by their children. Although the Roosevelt administration eventually came to respond to the plight of the young, it did so quietly, after first subsuming it within the vast, amorphous problem of "unemployment."

See also: Social Welfare; Work and Poverty.


Reiman, Richard A. 1992. The New Deal and American Youth: Ideas and Ideals in a Depression Decade. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Salmond, John A. 1983. A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.