Youth Inherits the Depression - 1938

Boys and girls 16 to 24 years old make up one-sixth of the population of the United States. How these youth, approximately 21,200,000 in number, [Note 1] are occupied is not accurately known. The best available data indicate that in November 1937:

  • 5,200,000 were attending schools and colleges. [Note 2]
  • 3,200,000—nearly all girls—were engaged in homemaking or, for other reasons, were neither in educational institutions nor available for gainful work.
  • 7,100,000 were employed. [Note 3]
  • 1,800,000 were employed part-time.
  • 3,900,000 were unemployed—that is, able to work, and seeking work, but unable to find it in private industry.

Of these youth who could find no jobs, nearly 2,400,000 were boys. More than 1,000,000 were boys in their late teens and the others were 20 to 24 years old. More than 1,500,000 were girls, about half in their teens and half from 20 to 24. The boys alone outnumbered the entire American expeditionary force to France during 1917-18. Boys and girls together were almost equal in number to the entire United States Army during the World War.

During the most prosperous months of the last eight years, the roster of idle youth may have dropped to 3,000,000 or less. During the worst months it may have risen to 7,000,000 or more—equal to the total population of Canada 16 years of age or older. The removal of 3,900,000 young people from the list of unemployed would not require 3,900,000 jobs.

If more young men could find jobs at adequate wages, more girls would give up work, or looking for it, and devote themselves exclusively to homemaking. If more fathers were employed, more youth might remain in school longer and more of the girls might stay at home while awaiting marriage.

On the other hand, from 250,000 to 350,000 more youth would be in the labor market if the Federal Government, through the National Youth Administration, were not helping them to stay in high schools and colleges.

In addition, many—probably most—of the 1,800,000 youth who are employed part-time want regular full-time jobs. And many who have full-time jobs do not earn enough to live independently or establish their own homes. Some of them are working for no pay. [Note 4]

The waiting-lines of unemployed youth are not stationary. Every year 2,250,000 boys and girls leave schools and colleges (some before they are 16). Perhaps 2,000,000 join the queues of jobseekers. A few are employed immediately. Others have to wait—sometimes for years.

Girls have had a relatively easier time than boys in finding jobs during the depression years. Work in retail stores, offices, restaurants, hotels, domestic service, teaching, the textile and clothing industries, and other fields in which large numbers of women are employed has been more stable than employment in construction, mining, heavy manufacturing, and other fields which employ men almost exclusively.

Moreover, it is customary to pay women lower wages than men. In November 1937 only 56 out of every 100 young men 20 to 24 years old were employed fulltime, and only 68 out of every 100 were employed full- or part-time, compared with 90 out of every 100 in 1930. The employment of boys 18 and 19 years old probably has declined even more sharply.

The employment of youth less than 18 years old had been dropping for a generation prior to the great depression. Between 1920 and 1930, the number of 16-year-olds gainfully employed decreased by more than 35 per cent.

Among 17- year-olds, the drop was about 25 per cent. During the depression years, more youth in their teens have stayed in school longer. Although it may be considered desirable that all youth remain m school until they reach the age of 18, the cold fact remains that during these depression years many hundreds of thousands of boys and girls of less than 18 have been both out of school and out of work.

Youth 16 to 24 years old account for one-third of all the unemployed in the United States. The percentage of unemployment is higher in this age-range than in any other. The Federal Census of Unemployment and Partial Unemployment in November 1937 showed that in some States as many as 39 per cent, of the totally unemployed were 15 to 24 years old.

While a few industries favor the young—and consider men superannuated when they reach 40 or 45—in a majority of occupations youth is at a disadvantage. A test survey of rural youth in Iowa in 1934 disclosed that among more than 1000 who had been out of school an average of three and one- quarter years, 56 per cent, had never held any regular positions.

Test surveys in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts showed that among job-seeking youth 16 and 17 years of age, from 56 to 69 per cent, were unemployed. [Note 5]

The United States Employment Service has found the greatest difficulty in obtaining jobs for young men under 25:

In general the reason is that in a period . . . when labor is plentiful in most lines, employers insist on getting an experienced worker where one is available. Where qualified experienced workers over 25 years of age are available, few employers can be expected to hire and train young persons whose capacities and efficiencies are yet to be demonstrated. [Note 6]

Depression unemployment among youth is not peculiar to the United States. In 1931, 30 per cent, of all the unemployed in Great Britain were 14 to 24 years old. In November 1933, 34 per cent of all the unemployed in Sweden were 16 to 25 years of age. In 1932, 41 per cent, of all the unemployed in Italy were 15 to 25 years of age. In June 1933, 26 per cent, of all the unemployed in Germany were 24 years of age or less. [Note 7]

In some countries compulsory military service takes up part of the slack. In some, frustrated youth have flocked into the shirted private armies of dictators, actual or aspiring. The United States so far has been spared both of these alternatives. But whether it takes the form of apathy and broken morale or of resentment and revolt (either individual or collective), there must be a price to pay for maintaining a horde of frustrated youth in idleness.

First Aids to Youth

The first new Federal agency created under the Roosevelt Administration was for the benefit of unemployed youth. The Civilian Conservation Corps, set up in April 1933, put 250,000 unmarried young men between the ages of 18 and 25, from families on public relief rolls, to work in forestry, park, and soil-erosion camps throughout the country.

Almost instantly this program won general public approval. To these young men were added some 28,000 war veterans, 14,800 Indians, and nearly 25,000 older men from relief rolls in areas near CCC camps. In 1935 the age limits were spread to include young people from 17 to 28. In August 1935 the CCC reached its peak of 505,782 enrollees, from which it has dropped gradually to approximately 300,000.

Successful as it has been, the CCC inherently can be only one element in a program designed to help the mass of unemployed youth. At the outset, it was thought of primarily as a conservation and relief program; little attention was given to the general education or occupational training of CCC enrollees.

However, it was discovered that 84 per cent, of them had not completed high school, 44 per cent, had not completed the elementary grades, and some were illiterate. Almost half of them had never had any regular employment.

The educational program of the CCC has been greatly expanded, although, owing to various difficulties, it has not, in the opinion of the Advisory Committee on Education, realized its full potentialities. [Note 8] The cost of the CCC—approximately $1200 annually for each enrollee—put a financial limit on its expansion. Moreover, it reached none of the girls.

Beginning in 1932, college attendance dropped for the first time since the World War. Many parents who ordinarily would have sent their children to college found themselves financially unable to do so.

The opportunities for young people to earn their way through college had shrunk. Various educators proposed that the Federal Government make available a small amount of money for the assistance of promising but needy college students.

In the fall of 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration established experimentally at the University of Minnesota a student-aid program. In February 1934 this form of aid was extended throughout the country to non-profit-making and tax-exempt institutions of higher education.

Some 75,000 students were permitted to earn an average of $15 a month on work projects developed by the colleges. This program met with such approval that it was resumed by FERA on a slightly larger scale during the college year 1934-35.

In the summer of 1934, FERA set up several educational camps for unemployed women. This experiment grew, under FERA, to encompass 47 camps with an enrollment of 3000 women, most of them 20 to 25 years of age.

For periods of from one to four months each, they were given elementary training in home economics, care of health, simple types of work, such as book-repairing and the preparation of hospital and household supplies, and various creative arts.

As economic recovery set in, it became evident that there was a shortage of skilled workers in many lines. President Roosevelt created, in June 1934, a Federal Committee on Apprentice Training to help the States to "inaugurate or continue programs in accordance with basic standards for apprentice training."

During the pit-depression period of 1932 and early 1933, the plight of youth had been dramatized by the thousands of boys and girls who had taken to "bumming" their way around the country. The transient camps established by FERA temporarily took care of many of these youth on the road—in May 1935, when we were well above the depression bottom, 54,000 youth were in transient camps. Others were drawn into the CCC and other Federal programs for the unemployed, or perhaps found private employment.

Some older youth found temporary work on the emergency program of FERA, the Civil Works Administration, and the Works Progress Administration. FERA grants kept schools open in many rural communities that had exhausted their resources. Through FERA, CWA, WPA, and PWA, Federal money was used to improve, repair, and enlarge school buildings and related educational facilities throughout the country.

Creation of NYA

The various direct and indirect aids to youth provided during the first two years of the Roosevelt Administration cost considerable money and effort It soon became evident that they were inadequate. Some of them sank scalpels far enough into the social organism to expose to view conditions far worse than most people had suspected.

In May 1935 there were 2,877,000 youth, 16 to 24 years old, on relief (and these did not include youth in CCC camps or on other special Federal programs). More than 1,250,000 of them were seeking work but could not find it In the urban areas less than half, and in the rural areas less than one-fourth, of all youth on relief had gone to school beyond the eighth grade. [Note 9]

A great majority pf them had no skills. Millions of youth on the margin of relief or a few levels above it faced similar difficulties with similar handicaps.

Destructive as enforced idleness may be at any age, it is likely to be most devastating to youth. Older people usually have formed habits of work. If their work habits and self- respect decay, they at least have less long to live than the oncoming generation. Youth who have not learned to work at all, much less how to do any particular kind of work, may be a deadweight on the nation for half a century to come.

The Federal Government was trying to preserve the morale and skills of the heads of indigent families by creating emergency work. For the millions of younger children in relief families, food, clothing, shelter, and schooling were the essential guarantees against the degeneration of the human assets of die nation. But youth mired between school and self-support obviously required something more. Most of all they needed activity, preferably regular work, and some sense of being wanted.

As the magnitude and long-term social hazards of the idle youth problem became more apparent in 1933 and 1934, many persons urged that the Federal Government try to deal with it more comprehensively. Among them probably the most influential were Mis. Roosevelt, Mr. Charles W. Taussig, President of the American Molasses Company, and Mr. Harry L. Hopkins, FERA Administrator, and other officials of FERA, the Children's Bureau, and the Office of Education. [Note 10]

Although sympathetic to their suggestions, President Roosevelt at first demurred at spending more money for youth. He apparently considered that, in view of other imperative needs, the CCC, in which he felt an inventor's legitimate pride, college student aid, and the various incidental aids already provided were taking as much of the total emergency expenditures as he was justified in earmarking for youth.

He also expressed concern that a special Federal youth agency, as such, might be misconstrued as a step toward the political organization or regimentation of youth. In the late spring of 1935, however, following the appropriation of $4,880,000,000 for work relief, he decided to take this risk.

On June 26, 1935, he established by executive order the National Youth Administration and tentatively allotted for its use during the ensuing fiscal year $50,000,000.

Each of four Government agencies wished to administer this program. The competition was especially spirited between the Office of Education and the relief officials. The President finally settled this contest in favor of the latter by designating Mr. Aubrey Williams, Deputy WPA Administrator, as Executive Director of NYA.

To give other groups a voice in the drafting of the program he created two committees. The first was an Executive Committee of departmental officials under the chairmanship of Miss Josephine Roche, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

The second, under the chairmanship of Mr. Taussig, was a National Advisory Committee made up of 35 representatives of business, labor, agriculture, education, church and welfare groups, and youth.

This organization set out to do something for youth. It had a very small amount of money (about $10 per idle youth). These limited funds (and the terms of the appropriation) made it necessary first to give attention to youth in families on relief.

At the outset three basic related decisions were made: that the administration of the program should be decentralized, that the fullest efforts should be made to enlist the active co-operation of all State and local agencies interested in youth, and that ample room should be left for experiment.

NYA took over from FERA the college student aid and the educational camps for unemployed young women. The educational camps were conducted for two years, during which they reached a peak enrollment of 3500 in 29 camps in the fall of 1936.

NYA officials gradually arrived at the conclusion that all that was done in these camps, and more, could be done more efficiently by other methods. NYA also took over temporarily the financing and nominal supervision of the Federal Committee on Apprentice Training.

On June 1, 1937, the committee was transferred to the Department of Labor, where it seemed to belong, since it was working along conventional lines in a narrow field with the close co-operation of certain trade unions and industries.

The college aid plan, inherited from FERA, formed the nucleus of the first division of the NYA program. Student aid was expanded in two directions: to include a few graduate students and a large number of needy high school students.

Three other main divisions were set up: part-time work for out-of- school and out-of-work youth in families on relief, related training and the encouragement of constructive leisure-time activity for these youth, and vocational guidance and placement for all unemployed youth. From these four divisions (and the discarded camps for unemployed women) a fifth has recently been emerging: a novel experiment in education known as the Resident Program.

At the top of the administrative framework of NYA is a small national office with Mr. Richard R. Brown, assistant executive director under Mr. Williams, in active charge. For each State, for New York City, and for the District of Columbia, there is a NYA Youth Director, under whom, in turn, are various assistants, district and county supervisors, and project supervisors or foremen.

Dovetailing into this structure are unpaid advisory committees in all States, New York City, and the District of Columbia; more than 2600 local committees; and thousands of State and local agencies and private organizations, including the colleges and high schools that administer student aid.

More youth are enrolled on NYA programs than in the CCC. Yet for three years NYA has flourished with scant national publicity. NYA youth wear no uniforms, no distinguishing insignia. The NYA work programs are made up of thousands of small units—a boy here and a girl there, 15 boys here and 20 girls there, rarely as many as 100 working in the same place at the same task.

Shaped by a multitude of local and individual needs and facilities and by the imagination and ingenuity of State directors, local organizations, and individual private citizens, including the young people themselves, these units are diverse in character. Moreover, their patterns change from month to month and from week to week.

It is precisely because this program for youth in need is so varied, changing from State to State and from town to town, and from rural area to city, that it is so absorbing to try to picture and comprehend it. Its drama comes from the accumulation of small incidents rather than from the fanfare of youth on parade.

NYA does not pretend to offer a basic solution for the immense social and economic problems which today affect youth as well as the rest of the population. It tries to help young people in the crisis of unemployment and poverty to be a little more self-sufficient, to spend some of their time and energies in making themselves better equipped to meet the realities of work, learning, and leisure time. The next chapters show the various ways in which NYA is approaching these needs for the less privileged youth of this country.

End Notes

Note 1: Based on Census Bureau's Estimate of Population for October l, 1937.

Note 2: Estimate based on attendance in colleges and last two years of secondary schools during 1935-36, with percentages added for increased enrollments since then and for retarded pupils.

Note 3: Includes those temporarily absent from regular jobs. These figures on full- and part-time employment and unemployment are estimates based on the enumerative test census of November-December 1937. This was taken on 1600 postal routes, representing 1 1/2 percent, of the entire population, as a check on the voluntary unemployment registration of November 16-20.

Note 4: Homer P. Rainey and others: How Fare American Youth? Pp. 32-33, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1937.

Note 5: Ibid., p. 36.

Note 6: Who Are the Job Seekers? P. 41. Government Printing Office, 1937.

Note 7: T W. Thacher Winslow: Youth, A World Problem. P. 103. National Youth Administration. Government Printing Office, 1937.

Note 8: Report of the Advisory Committee on Education. P. 119. Government Printing Office, 1938.

Note 9: See Works Progress Administration: Youth on Relief, 1936, and Rural Youth on Relief, 1937. Government Printing Office.

Note 10: Soc Department of labor: Employment for Graduates of Educational Institutions; and Committee on Youth Problems of the Office of Education: Nation-Wide Community Youth Program, issued in March and April 1935, respectively. Government Printing Office.

Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "Youth Inherits the Depression." in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 6-16.

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