|This Week in American History
June 2026, 1935.
FDR Launches a Program To Rescue America's Youth
The Great Depression of the 1930s usually conjures up images of unemployed adult men standing on lines at soup kitchens, or riding in freight cars and living a precarious existence in hobo camps. Actually, one-third of the unemployed during the depression were young people under the age of twenty-five, and many of them became wanderers desperately looking for work. This was a matter of special concern to President Franklin Roosevelt, for he knew that this young generation, hungry and discouraged and limited in their future prospects, was going to have to continue fighting for improvements in the general welfare of the nation.
In March 1934, President Roosevelt wrote a letter to the chairman of the Citizens' Conference on the Crisis in Education which discussed some of his concerns. He wrote: "That our educational institutions have suffered much within the past few years is evident. Because of a lack of funds, thousands of schools have closed early this year and many have eliminated highly essential services.
"Although the effects of the present lack of adequate educational opportunities on our national life may not be noticeable today, the time may soon come when dire effects will be apparent. It is, therefore, the responsibility of every American to see that the great strides that we have made in education since Colonial times shall not be lost. It is also his responsibility to see that the schools march forward, that the scope of education become such as to provide educational opportunities for every person from early childhood into adult life. One group that we need to consider especially are the many youths who are not in school and who are apparently drifting."
On June 26, 1935, President Roosevelt issued an Executive Order establishing the National Youth Administration. In an accompanying statement, the President said: "I have determined that we shall do something for the Nation's unemployed youth because we can ill afford to lose the skill and energy of these young men and women. They must have their chance in school, their turn as apprentices and their opportunity for jobsa chance to work and earn for themselves. In recognition of this great national need, I have established a National Youth Administration, to be under the Works Progress Administration."
Roosevelt's executive order set up a National Advisory Board, with similar boards in states and municipalities. "On these Boards," said the President, "there shall be representatives of industry, labor, education, and youth because I want the youth of America to have something to say about what is being done for them." The Executive Director of the project was Aubrey Williams, and he served under Harry Hopkins, the Director of the WPA.
President Roosevelt wrote about his goals for the organization and how it was organized, looking back from the year 1937. "The young people of the United States who had been caught in the depression," wrote FDR, "had special problems in addition to those shared with their elders. Their needs were greater and more far-reaching than the immediate demands of food, clothing, and shelter. They were confronted with the problem of an education, a beginning in a trade or a career, and, above all, the prevention of the natural effects of long idleness and continued frustration. Theirs was a spiritual as well as a physical problem.
"Certain Provisions of the NRA [National Recovery Act] codes increased the difficulty of the problem. Most industries had abolished employment of persons under 16 years of age, a condition which resulted in the immediate discharge of 1,500,000 employed youth. The adoption of minimum wages served also to keep out of employment vast numbers of young people otherwise eligible, because employers who had to pay a definite minimum naturally selected their employees from the vast number of unemployed adults rather than young persons. The result was to swell the number of the hopeless young people looking for jobs, or just 'hanging around' on the street corners, or aimlessly wandering around the country.
"The first direct attack upon this problem was the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps. This gathered approximately a half-million boys and young men from the streets and from idleness into a healthful outdoor environment of work. However, the CCC was no help to girls and young women, or to young people who wished to continue in school or college, or to those millions of young men, who, for various reasons, could not be separated from their families. Of course, during this time the enrollment in the colleges where tuition fees were charged was continuing to slump.
"In 1933, a conference of educators was called in Washington by the Commissioner of Education. One of the recommendations of this conference was the extension of financial aid to college students. In December 1933, a program of college aid was inaugurated by the FERA [Federal Emergency Relief Administration]. Under this plan colleges and universities were given relief funds for the employment of students up to 10 percent of their enrollment on useful part-time projects, at the average wage of $15.00 per month. About 75,000 students immediately took advantage of this, and later, with the quote raised to 12 percent, the number increased to 100,000.
"Even the CCC and the college-aid program, effective as they were, did not reach many hundreds of thousands who could not take advantage of them.
"In the spring of 1935 a survey of depression-youth was made by the Works Progress Administration. It was found that 3,000,000 people between 16 and 25 years of age were on relief, an average of one in seven. Of those on relief in cities, less than 40 percent had gone beyond the eighth grade and less than 3 percent had entered college. Most distressing of all was the discovery of the large numbers of young people, who, in final desperation, had virtually become hobos. The transient service of the WPA in a single day in May 1935, counted 54,000 young people registered at its camps and shelters. There was no way of recording the large numbers of unregistered, who had literally become tramps on the highways and on freight trains."
There were three operating divisions in the National Youth Administration. In the Works Projects Program, out-of-school youths provided clerical assistance in public offices, library work, park beautification and landscaping, soil erosion control, and minor construction. In the student aid program, which covered both high school and college, young people worked to maintain school grounds and buildings, provided clerical assistance to the faculty, did library and laboratory work, and also provided educational and recreational work in the community.
The Guidance and Placement program provided placement activity through Junior Employment Counselors, and the Federal Committee on Apprentice Training worked through the NYA to provide apprentice training for young workers. During the two years ending in June 30, 1936, the benefits of the Youth Administration reached 1,500,000 young people. Employment levels reached approximately 500,000 early in 1936 and remained at that level. At the peak of operations in April, 1936, there were 404,749 young people receiving student aid and 181,279 employed on projects.
The Junior Placement Service established offices in 50 cities throughout the country. By the close of 1936, 65,700 young job applicants had been interviewed, and 24,941 had been placed in private employment. A program of educational camps for unemployed young women was begun in September of 1936, and by the close of the year 16 camps had been established with a total enrollment of 1,009 young women.
President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in all WPA projects, and as a consequence, there were a total of 300,000 black youths who passed through the NYA program. After the devastating hurricane and tidal wave of September 21, 1938 hit New England, causing 460 deaths and $150 million in damages, National Youth Administration workers were deployed in cooperation with the Corps of Engineers, the Civilian Conservation Corps, WPA workers, and the Red Cross, to provide help to the hurricane's victims and to aid in reconstruction efforts.
By October of 1936, in a speech at Kansas City, Missouri, President Roosevelt could state that, "Nothing has made me happier on this trip than seeing at first hand that the youthful hitch-hiker has disappeared from our highways and from the box cars and freight trains. The youth of the land can once more look forward with confidence and courage just as we of the older generation did in our day."
By 1940, President Roosevelt was gearing up American production, especially defense production, in order to meet the fascist threat coming from the Axis Powers. In a press conference on May 17, he was asked by a reporter where America was going to get all the workmen needed to gear up industry. The reporter then asked the President whether he would consider expanding the Youth Administration's work experience school as a feeder for the workmen needed for the gear-up program. Roosevelt answered that there would be training through a half-dozen methods, one of them the NYA.
At a subsequent press conference on January 3, 1941, Roosevelt stated that, "I think NYA alone is training about 300,000 people at this moment." Nevertheless, after the Congressional elections of 1942, the anti-FDR coalition put a rider on a war appropriations bill, and succeeded in shutting down the National Youth Administration.