We all know that when FDR took office the national unemployment rate was a shocking twenty-five percent. But what is often overlooked is that the unemployment rate for young people between the ages of 16 and 24 was even higher – a staggering thirty percent. Sadly, as our nation’s high school and college graduates prepare to hit the job market, the 1930s statistics reflect a similar situation today-a national unemployment rate of between 8 and nine percent, and a youth unemployment rate of between 15 and 16 percent.
The high rate of youth unemployment in FDR’s day caused Eleanor Roosevelt to express the fears of many when she remarked that she was terrified that “we might be losing this generation.” These fears spurred the government into action. Within a matter of weeks of assuming office the Roosevelt Administration broke history when it established perhaps the first federal “green jobs” program in history-the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Designed to help the neediest urban youth, the CCC employed tens of thousand of young men who voluntarily joined the corps to provide sustenance for their families ($25 of the $30 the workers earned per month were sent home) and help restore our nation’s natural environment through reforestation, erosion control, wildlife protection, and a myriad of other tasks. The CCC captured the imagination of the American public and went on to employ over half a million young men before it was terminated in 1942.
In spite of its popularity, the CCC was considered an emergency measure, and was never intended to meet all of the needs of the nation’s young people struggling against the ravages of the Great Depression. Still concerned about the fate of those between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five, FDR issued an executive order on June 26, 1935 establishing a new federal entity that would concern itself solely with the well being of young people, the National Youth Administration or NYA.
Interestingly, the NYA approached the problem of youth unemployment from a long term perspective. Here, the emphasis was not so much on immediate relief (as it was in the CCC), but rather on creating a work force that possessed the skills needed to engage in permanent employment. To this end, the NYA decided to provide “work study” programs (the precursor to the modern “work study” programs in place today) to those young people who were already in school but were in danger of having to drop out due to financial hardship; and skills acquisitions to those young people who were not in school but were unemployed. The former program would allow those in school to complete their studies so as to provide a more educated work force over the long term. It also had the added benefit of keeping them out of the already overburdened labor market. The latter program would provide those in need of employable skills to acquire them, so that once they had a job they could keep it.
Taken together the CCC and NYA provided young people during the Great Depression with a much needed ally-the Federal Government. As a result of these programs millions of young Americans were able to gain immediate employment, complete their education or acquire vocational skills that helped build their lives and the country at the same time. Surely, the young people of our own day deserve the same chance to help us restore American and fashion a better future for us all.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.