A New Deal for Youth

Mary McLeod Bethune, NYA director of Negro Activities; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and NYA Director Aubrey Willis Williams.

Mary McLeod Bethune, NYA director of Negro Activities; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and NYA Director Aubrey Willis Williams.
Source: thegrio.com

Sources disagree over how much First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had to prod her husband to establish the National Youth Administration (NYA). However, there is no question that Mrs. Roosevelt was deeply troubled over the plight of the nation’s youth—that they might become another stranded or lost generation. This fear, moreover, was the impetus for her vigorous role in the initiation, planning and daily operation of the NYA—and her high-profile role in promoting public awareness of its achievements. Significantly, FDR referred to the NYA as “the missus’s organization!”

NYA recruitment poster

NYA recruitment poster
Courtesy, LOC

Established in 1935, the NYA was a leader in gender as well as racial equity: the number of girls served sometimes equaled or exceeded the number of boys! The dynamic educator Mary McLeod Bethune who headed the New Deal’s informal “black cabinet” that advised the administration on racial policies, was named the NYA’s Director of Negro Affairs, responsible for the implementation of the racially progressive policies that both Mrs. Roosevelt and the NYA’s Director Aubrey Williams espoused.

Williams, born and raised in Alabama, deplored the fact that Blacks were not being treated fairly by government projects and was determined to make the NYA an exception. His progressivism (“one of the pinkest of the pink,” according to Representative Hamilton Fish), made Williams—and the NYA—a target among some in Congress that had refused to enact an anti-lynching law.

Girls in NYA war training program, San Augustine, Texas, 1943. 

Girls in NYA war training program, San Augustine, Texas, 1943. 
Photo: John Vachon, Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information photograph collection. Courtesy, LOC

No age group escaped hardship during the Great Depression, but the cohort served by the NYA, young men and women ages 16 to 25, was especially hard hit.  In 1935 when the NYA was inaugurated, an estimated five million of that age group were out of school and unemployed. At the beginning of the New Deal, the Children’s Bureau estimated that 23,000 adolescent hobos traveled the country riding the rails and hitchhiking along highways in search of work. Unemployment among black youth was much higher than that of white youth and Blacks found it extremely difficult to get a job, even in agriculture or domestic and personal service.

The NYA provided work relief to out-of-school, unemployed youth and work-study aid to make it possible for students to remain in high school or attend college. Youth who lacked proper medical care for economic reasons received it through the NYA.  Such student aid programs were widespread and popular.

"Projects for Out-of-School Youth," Inaugural Parade, Washington, D.C., 1937.

"Projects for Out-of-School Youth," Inaugural Parade, Washington, D.C., 1937. 
Credit: Wikipedia

The first NYA work relief projects paid little attention to training possibilities. They provided work experience, but of a general, unskilled nature. NYA youth helped build parks and playgrounds; worked as aides to public authorities; looked after crippled children; assisted state and local traffic departments; and repaired books in local libraries—work that was useful to communities but less so to enrollees.

To aid rural youth who weren’t able to come to work in the morning and return home each night, some live-in projects were developed. In one such residence, girls from neighboring counties worked on a machine sewing project in the afternoon and, having not completed high school, attended classes each morning. By mid-1938, one hundred such centers were in operation, often at abandoned CCC camps or campuses of agricultural colleges.  The NYA partnered with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to help youths who wished to take up farming. The NYA would train them in efficient farming methods and the FSA would lend them money to go into business.

Girls at NYA welding class at Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1943.

Girls at NYA welding class at Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1943.
Young women made up about 43 percent of the National Youth Administration’s total enrollment. Photo: Gordon Parks

From mid-1940 defense began to dominate the NYA. By early 1942, the out-of-school program had been abandoned, construction projects ended and the work study programs terminated. The emphasis became “industrial training,” mainly in machine-shop work, sheet-metal trades, welding, and electrical industries. Employment in the defense industry supplied the vital ingredient of job training often missing in a depressed economy.

One of a handful of New Deal programs that had progressive racial policies, the NYA employed 2.6 million young men and women in its out-of-school work program and more than 2 million in its student work program during its nine-year run.  Growing opposition to the New Deal, Republican victories in the 1942 mid-term election, education officials’ fear that vocational training encroached on their domain and Aubrey Williams’s progressivism contributed to the demise of the NYA.

Men in training at NYA machine shop.

Men in training at NYA machine shop.
Courtesy, Encyclopedia of Alabama

Congress killed the NYA in January 1944 despite its popularity, advancement of racial and gender diversity and exemplary contribution to war production.

Professor Emerita of Social Work and Social Policy at Adelphi University, Trudy Goldberg has written about the feminization of poverty from a cross-national perspective; the history of work and welfare; and the New Deal. She is chair of the National Jobs for All Network. A version of this article first appeared in the organization’s February 2023 newsletter.

Harry Hopkins, The First and Final Task of Government

Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946).

Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946) 
Hopkins oversaw the New Deal relief programs. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946) stood at the side of President Franklin Roosevelt through the two terrible crises of the 20th century—the Great Depression and the Second World War. Hopkins was the president’s trusted advisor, his close friend, his gatekeeper, and for three and a half years, his house guest.  He was never elected to any office, yet he occupied a position of power in Washington that has yet to be matched. 

Hopkins served as FDR’s federal relief administrator from 1933 to 1939, first as supervisor of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); then heading the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which put four million unemployed people to work in four months, and later the Works Progress Administration (WPA),

FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934.

FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934
Hopkins supervised the first emergency relief effort, FERA, superseded by the CWA and later, the WPA. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

which created jobs for 8.5 million Americans, and left a legacy on the American landscape that endures to this day.

He also served as Secretary of Commerce from 1938 to 1940. Hopkins’ upbringing in America’s heartland and his education at Iowa’s Grinnell College prepared him for his lifelong fight for social justice. As a social worker, his goal was social justice for all Americans. He began his public career with a deeply embedded belief that the government on all levels—but especially the federal government— has the constitutional responsibility to ensure the general welfare of all of its citizens. 

He firmly believed that this included the right to earn a decent living and, if private industry could not absorb all those who wanted to work, it rested with the federal government to be the employer of last resort. 

Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936

Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936
Hopkins believed government must insure the well-being of all its citizens. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

During the dark years of the Depression, Hopkins stood out as the one who knew how to cut through red tape. He had the administrative skills to get things done and a sharp tongue for those who criticized the unemployed as lazy.

During the war years Hopkins deftly carried out power diplomacy, acting as the lynchpin for the Big Three—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—fighting a coalition war.  As Roosevelt’s envoy, he was constantly ill, often to the point of debilitation, but relentlessly served the president’s mission to defeat fascism.  For Hopkins, this was the goal of social justice writ large. 

For all his adult life, Hopkins worked as a public servant.  Human welfare was always his priority – for the welfare Americans suffering deprivation during the economic depression of the 1930s and then from 1940 through 1945, for people worldwide being terrorized by expansionist and militaristic dictators.

Hopkins and Churchill, 1941.

Hopkins and Churchill, 1941
Hopkins was FDR’s emissary during during WWII. Courtesy, Brittanica.com.

At Hopkins memorial service in 1946, John Steinbeck described Hopkins’ legacy: “Human welfare is the first and final task of government. There is no other.”

That dictum—the Americans have the right to live in security and that government has the responsibility to provide for that security— is Hopkins greatest legacy. In the aftermath of Roosevelt’s administrations, Steinbeck wrote, the federal government can no longer deny its responsibility for human welfare.

President Roosevelt and Hopkins in a car

President Roosevelt and Hopkins
Rochester Minnesota, 1938 Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Today, my grandfather’s legacy remains largely unrecognized.  It would serve the nation well to remember that the task of government is to insure the general welfare of all Americans in peace and in war. Those who have the honor to serve in government must understand that this is their first and final responsibility.

Learn more about Harry Hopkins on the Living New Deal’s website.

June Hopkins is professor of history at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. Before becoming a historian, she, like her grandfather, was a social worker in New York City. She is the author of Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer (1999) and ‘Jewish First Wife, Divorced’: The Correspondence Between Ethel Gross and Harry Hopkins (2003). She serves on the Living New Deal’s Research Board.