Saving a “Lost Generation” Through the National Youth Administration

May 19, 2011David B. Woolner

We could use the ingenuity of FDR's program to combat unemployment and skill stagnation among the country's youth.

As college seniors prepare to graduate across the country, recent reports on the state of employment among young people offer discouraging news. In 2010, for example, the unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 16 and 24 was 18.4 percent, and in January of 2011, the Department of Labor reported that it had climbed to a staggering 21 percent. Moreover, even for those college graduates lucky enough to find work, the jobs they acquire often pay less and do not require a college degree. And with grads taking on employment in the lower and unskilled market, the prospects for work among those without a college degree become even more discouraging. At the same time, those who do go to college in the hopes of better employment often graduate under a heavy burden of student loan debt -- an average of $22,900 for the class of 2011.

Statistics like these -- which represent the highest youth unemployment rate in more than 60 years and the highest level of student debt ever recorded -- have led to concerns about a the emergence of a "lost generation." Thanks to the Great Recession, this group may lose skills and/or follow a career trajectory that will place them in a lower income bracket for years.

Such concerns are not new. More than three-quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt faced a similar set of problems. During the Great Depression, youth unemployment was estimated to be as high as 30 percent and many young people found themselves unable to afford the cost of even a high school education. Taking stock of these grim statistics, Eleanor Roosevelt remarked in 1934 that she often had "moments of real terror when I think we might be losing this generation." To combat this problem, the Roosevelt administration created a unique federal agency dedicated to helping young people: the National Youth Administration.

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The National Youth Administration (NYA) was launched by executive order in June of 1935. Its goals were two-fold. The first was to prevent young people already enrolled in high school and college from dropping out due to financial hardship. This was accomplished by providing the students with grants in return for part-time work in libraries, cafeterias, as janitors, etc., with the twin objectives of developing the talents of young people while at same time keeping them out of the struggling labor market. The second goal was to provide training and/or employment of long-term value. By 1937, more than 400,000 youth were either employed or in job training programs under the auspices of local NYA offices. With the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 these figures increased significantly, with the vast majority of those in the program getting training as skilled machinists to work in the nation's burgeoning defense industries. The productive labor of these NYA-trained workers helped turn the United States into the great "Arsenal of Democracy" that made it possible for us to win the war against fascism.

Moreover, under the leadership of such enlightened figures as Aubrey Williams, the NYA also worked to specially address the problems of unemployment and access to education among African Americans. Williams created an Office of Minority Affairs headed by Mary McLeod Bethune, who would soon become one of the most effective and outspoken advocates for the employment and educational rights of blacks in the country.

Overall, the NYA helped over 4.5 million young people find work, get vocational training, or afford a better education before the office was closed down in 1943. Equally important, it helped a struggling generation not only to maintain its dignity, but also to contribute to the growth and productivity of the American economy at a desperate time in our history. Indeed, even though the NYA was a federal program, it became enormously popular among the business community and offers us a fine example of what enlightened leadership can do in a moment of great crisis. Surely providing jobs and making education and vocational training more affordable for young people is an investment in our future that this generation of Americans -- and all generations -- deserve. With youth unemployment approaching 25 percent, and with the cost of higher education skyrocketing, perhaps it is time to offer this generation the hope and promise of another NYA.

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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