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"Dear Mrs. Roosevelt": Cries for Help from the Depression Generation, and the American Youth Crisis of the 1930's


    Robert Cohen
    University of Georgia
    May 1996

  • In 1932 sociologist Thomas Minehan disguised himself as a hobo and set out to research the lives of transient, homeless men. Much to his surprise, Minehan found that "a great number" of hoboes ''were youths and even boys.... And as I left .... to live in hobo railroad yard camps or jungles and river shanty-towns, [where the homeless stopped as they wandered across the country I found more and more youths and not a few girls ... -- children really -- dressed in army breeches and boys' coats or sweaters -looking, except for their dirt and rags, like a Girl Scout Club on an outing." Minehan was so startled by this army of homeless youths that he made these poor children and teens the subject of his book Boy and Girl Tramps of America (1934). [1]

  • What Minehan had stumbled upon during his research was just one part of the youth problem of the 1930's. Some 250,000 youths belonged to the homeless sector that Minehan had studied in the early Depression years; millions of other teens and children, even though not homeless, faced material deprivation and limited educational opportunities because of the economic crisis. The unemployment rate among young Americans during the 1930s was higher than that of the rest of the population. Experts on youth, such as Homer Rainey, director of the American Youth Commission, estimated that during the early Depression years "40 per cent of the youth (16-24) in the whole country are neither gainfully employed nor in school." Children below working age were utterly dependent upon their parents, and when those parents were unemployed -- as was common in this age of double digit joblessness, before the advent of federal unemployment and food relief programs -- hunger often resulted. Surveys revealed that a fifth of New York City's children suffered from malnutrition at the height of the Depression. In the impoverished coal regions of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia that malnutrition rate may have exceeded 90%. Schools and colleges were also thrown into crisis. Declining tax revenues disrupted the education of at least a third of a million children in 1932 in districts which lacked the funds to operate schools. Poverty forced some 80,000 college students to drop-out in 1932-1933, making this the first peace-time period in the twentieth century when American college enrollments declined. [2]

  • As the Depression deepened many young people began looking to Washington for assistance. The first Depression President, Herbert Hoover, with his belief in limited government and economic individualism proved unresponsive. [3] Hoover did little to address the youth problem -- even as it worsened in the waning days of his administration. Hoover's youth record contrasted dramatically with that of his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In each of the first three years of his administration, President Roosevelt, as part or his experimental and pragmatic New Deal program, created federal youth agencies and programs which provided direct relief to the Great Depression's youngest victims. These included the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933), which hired young men to work in reforestation and other conservation projects; the Federal Emergency Relief Administration's college aid program (1934), which funded work-study jobs to keep college students in school; and the National Youth Administration (1935), which provided work study jobs for both college and high school students as well as employment and job-training for out of school youth. The New Deal's National Recovery Act (1934) and Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) banned many exploitative forms of child labor. [4]

  • Not only these youth programs, but the high degree of public attention the Roosevelt administration focused upon poverty and the problems of the younger generation, convinced many children and teens that the New Deal was on their side. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was among the most vocal New Dealers when it came to youth problems. Mrs. Roosevelt frequently used her newspaper column "My Day," her weekly radio addresses, her speeches and books to discuss the Depression's impact on the young. [5] She also befriended leaders of America's Left-leaning student movement, which arose on college campuses in the mid-30s, and lobbied for expanded federal aid to youth and education. Mrs. Roosevelt's activism on behalf of youth was rooted in her own humanitarianism and her concern that adults had let the younger generation down by throwing them into a world of declining opportunities for careers and education. "I have moments of real terror," she explained in 1934, "when I think we may be losing this generation. We have got to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary." [6]

  • Mrs. Roosevelt's involvement in youth issues and relief efforts for the poor made a strong impression on many teens and children; they felt they could confide in her about their problems, and even look to her to personally help them with those problems. These feelings of intimacy and affection are reflected in the letters that youngsters sent the First Lady asking for material assistance. The letters, most of which came from needy youths, also offer a unique window into the Depression experience -- enabling us to see what it was like to be young and poor during the 1930s. [7]

  • The most striking aspect of the youngsters' letters to Mrs. Roosevelt was their somberness and their almost adult-like tone. Only a relative handful of letters (out of the 150 surveyed for this article) gave any sense of childhood or adolescence as periods when play and other child-like pursuits were at center stage. It was relatively rare to find letters asking for toys or other items which these young people could use for fun.

  • Even when they did request items which we might think of as recreational, the pressure of poverty often prodded these young letter writers to think of such items in more adult terms. Thus requests for bicycles were repeatedly made to Mrs. Roosevelt in terms of transportation and work needs rather than as playthings. For example, in 1935, a young girl living in Massachusetts wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt:

    The school which I attend is very far and as I am not very healthy I often get pains in my sides. My father only works for two days a week and there are six in my family, it is impossible in almost every way that I get a bicycle. I am in the eighth grade and am very fond of school. Sometimes I have to miss school on account of the walk is so far. I have often thought things would pick up and father might be able to get me a bicycle, but instead they have grown worse. I assure you that the bicycle shall not be used as a pleasure but as a necessity. [8]
  • By far the largest category of requests were for clothing. The children and teens asked Mrs. Roosevelt for clothes -- often used garments -- to help them keep warm and look respectable, frequently citing dire need for such items to enable them to attend school (particularly in the winter). "I am writing you for some of your old soiled dress if you have any," a 13 year old girl from Arkansas began her letter to the First Lady in winter 1936. "I am a poor girl who has to stay out of school on account of dresses, and slips, and a coat. I am in the seventh grade in school but I have to stay out of school because I have not books or clothes to ware. I am in need of dresses and slips and a coat very bad."

  • Along with being ill-clothed, some of the young letter writers were ill-fed and beset by health problems as a result of their poverty. An eighth grader from Salida, Colorado confessed to Mrs. Roosevelt that her family was so poor that "every week we go to bed one or two days without anything to eat." [9]

  • Through the letters you also hear stories of children who could not afford eyeglasses, operations, or even routine doctors visits. One such youth -- a 14 year old from Milltown, New Jersey, became so concerned about her health problems and her parents' inability to get her care that as she explained to the First Lady in 1935:

    I was doctering for a while with out my mother and dad knowing it yet and I owe Dr. Forney $7.50. I haven't any idea how to earn this amount. I was doctering for an infected arm. Every time I went the Dr. charged $1.50, and I went 5 times. Right this minute I crying because I can't earn it. I don't want my parents to find [out]. [10]
  • The material and physical effects of such poverty are almost self-evident. But what about the psychological impact of hard times on the young? Most of the literature which addresses this issue with respect to the 1930s suggests that the young were less traumatized by poverty than were their parents. Historian Robert S. McElvaine (1983), for example, argues that "perhaps the most important difference between the effects of the Depression on children and adults was that the latter were largely free from the self-blame and shame that were so common, at least initially, among their parents." [11]

  • A related theme stressed in such oral histories as Studs Terkel's Hard Times was that Depression's emotional strain on the young was limited because poverty was so universal. This is the notion that since poverty was widespread, one grew up thinking that hard times were normal and so there was little shame attached to indigence: "we didn't know how poor we were because everyone we knew was poor." [12]

  • The children's letters to Mrs. Roosevelt suggest that the shame-free, guilt-free childhood described in Terkel's and McElvaine's books was far from universal. The letters indicate that many children and teens recognized that they were worse off than others and felt shame about this. Thus from Mason, Wisconsin two weeks after Christmas 1933 came a letter to the First Lady:

    from a poor little girl. I am ten years old. I had waited for Santa Claus to come but my mama said the chimney was blocked and he couldn't come, so I had a poor Christmas. I was expecting Santa to bring me some things.... I have read in the papers how good you are to the poor and thought maybe you can help me. I will appreciate it all my life. Today we have started school from our Christmas vacation and all the children talk about how many presents Santa has brought them and I felt so bad because I had nothing to say. [13]

  • Although it may be tempting to sentimentalize childhood, the fact is -- and this is reflected in the letters -- children raised in a capitalist culture (where poverty is seen as a sign of personal failure) can be quite cruel to schoolmates less fortunate than they. Thus when a 14 year old Iowa girl requested clothes, she informed the First Lady that '1 the kids at school all make fun of you if you can't dress fine." Two girls from Lackawanna New York, in asking for a bicycle in 1939 wrote that "in our city mostly all the girls and boys of the younger generation enjoy the privilege of having a bicycle and we feel very out of place. For this reason we are mocked and scorned and left out of many social activities."[14]

  • The sense of relative deprivation among poor children and teens was heightened during some religious holidays and school events, in which whole communities gathered. Easter, normally a joyous occasion, was especially painful for the poor because Americans customarily buy and wear new spring outfits for this holiday -- and the poor could not afford them: "Do you realize that "Easter is coming?" a New Jersey girl wrote the First Lady in 1934.

    Do you realize how many hearts are broken on this account? Do you realize how difficult it is going to be for ... people like me? I am a young girl of 15 and I need a coat. I have no money and no means of getting any. My father has been out of work for two years .... We were once the richest people in our town but now we are the lowest, considered the worst people of Port Morris. For Easter some friends of mine are thinking of getting new outfits and I just have to listen to them. How I wish I could have at least a coat. [15]
  • Graduations were probably the worst events for the poor. Impoverished students had worked hard for years to get through schools on a shoestring, but then found themselves unable to afford what was needed to participate in the graduation ceremonies which commemorated their educational progress. This is why one of the most frequent requests the young made of the First Lady were for dress clothes (and sometimes caps, gowns, and class rings) for graduation ceremonies: "I graduate this year and I haven't enough money to buy a dress. I give all I earn for food for the family," explained a Michigan girl in 1935. "I hate to go on the stage with the other girls in my shabby dress." [16]

  • As far as guilt is concerned, adults did bear the greatest share of it when family income collapsed in the face of unemployment -- since they were failing in their assigned familial role as breadwinners. But the letters suggest that children and teens too felt a sense of powerlessness that bred guilt. "Dear Mrs. Roosevelt," wrote a sixteen year old girl from Springfield, Massachusetts:

    Last May I beg my father to buy an electric refrigerator for mother on mother's day. We had talked about buying it with her. She thought it was not a very wise thing to pay cash. I wanted it so very bad that my father bought it. He agreed to pay monthly payments of seven dollars and twenty cents. What mother had said proved to be right. For two weeks after we bought the refrigerator I took sick with a serious kidney ailment [and so had hospital bills], ... and my father was rayed off after working for the railroad fifteen years. Many a girl of my age is hoping that on Christmas morn they will find a wristwatch, a handbag, or even a fur coat. But my one and only wish is to have father and mother spend a happy Christmas. Mrs. Roosevelt I am asking a favor which can make this wish come true .... keep up our payments until my father gets back to work. If the refrigerator was taken away from us father and mother would think it a disgrace. [17]

  • Another characteristic of many of the letters to Mrs. Roosevelt should give pause to anyone who thinks that their youth somehow shielded the Depression generation's poor children from feelings of shame about their condition. The letters contained frequent, elaborate, and even vehement pleas for the First Lady to keep their requests for material assistance confidential. Thus a Greensboro, North Carolina teenager confided to Mrs. Roosevelt that "though we are poor, we try to hold off embarrassment, for you know it is 'hard to be poor, and harder to admit it.' ... This [request for aid] is not intended for publication." [18]

  • Most of Mrs. Roosevelt's young letter writers were too overwhelmed with their own problems to raise partisan political issues. But in a deeper way the letters are profoundly political. Many of the letters were premised on the belief that Mrs. Roosevelt and the New Deal had come to Washington to relieve suffering and help the poor. And this is why, with a touching naivet(c), these youths often seemed to expect that Mrs. Roosevelt would fulfill their requests for personal financial assistance. Indeed, some were so sure that Mrs. Roosevelt would help them that they gave her deadlines by which they needed and expected her aid. In several cases, the kids were so convinced that Mrs. Roosevelt would assist them that they wrote back repeatedly, even after the First Lady's aides had turned them down. This notion that Mrs. Roosevelt and the New Deal administration cared about them and their welfare ran very deep; it was grounded in the youths' awareness of the new and expanded role that the federal government was playing in promoting the public welfare. Where prior to the New Deal, no federal agency other than the post office visibly serviced their communities, under FDR the alphabet agencies seemed to be serving everywhere: putting people to work, building parks, roads, and schools, insuring banks, bringing electricity to the countryside, funding students, and rendering an almost endless variety of other useful forms of assistance. [19] The letters suggest that impoverished youths welcomed this expanded role.

  • This faith in Mrs. Roosevelt and the beneficence of the federal government during the New Deal years crossed regional, religious, ethnic, and racial lines. The authors of these letters to the First Lady included northerners and southerners, recent immigrants and descendants of soldiers who served under General Washington, blacks and whites -- all of whom thought the First Lady had their interests at heart. As "a poor colored girl" explained, after asking Mrs. Roosevelt to find her father a job and finance her education,

    You don't know what it would mean to me if you would do it for me. You see I couldn't bring myself to ask just anybody to do this. I had to ask someone ... who is good and kind to colored people and does not hate them. You know as well as I do that a lot of the white people hate the colored people, so I couldn't ask just anybody like a white girl could. [20]

  • Sadly, Mrs. Roosevelt could not personally meet the individual requests of most of these youths. The tens of thousands of letters the First Lady received from adults and children pleading for material aid made it virtually impossible for her to render such personal assistance. But though she would disappoint most in these individual requests, she did become the New Deal's staunchest and most influential proponent of expanded federal aid to the young and helped convince FDR to establish the National Youth Administration (NYA). Between 1936 and 1943 more than two million students worked on NYA projects (including more than l0% of the total college student population), which enabled them to go further in their education than would have been possible had the New Deal not come along. In this same period, the NYA employed another 2.6 million youths in the agency's out-of-school job program. The NYA would also be the New Deal's most racially egalitarian aid program: 12.9% of the high school jobs and 13.6% of the out-of-school jobs were given to non-whites. [21]

  • This was an impressive youth record, especially compared with the previous administration's. The NYA helped close to five million youths, and the CCC another 2.6 million. In addition to this employment assistance, the New Deal supported poor boys and girls via the Social Security Administration's aid to dependent children program. The New Deal's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) prevented some 4,000 school closings by funding teacher salaries ($14 million worth) in America's poorest states. New Deal dollars funded a free school lunch program, 70% of all new school construction from 1933-1939, and more than 2,000 nursery schools. [22]

  • Although they appreciated this record, many youths in Depression America -- like the letter writers to Mrs. Roosevelt - wanted the New Deal to do even more on behalf of needy young people and equal educational opportunity. That is why America's leftist led-student movement held a march on Washington in February 1937 demanding aid to all needy students. This Youth Pilgrimage for Jobs and Education urged Congress to enact the student movement-sponsored American Youth Act, which would have given every low income student access to work-study funds, and insured that no American would have to drop out of school because of poverty. The protesters pointed out that the demand for NYA jobs was always far greater than the supply, and that the NYA never managed to employ more than one sixth of the nation's jobless youth at one time. But given the political constraints in Washington, which by the late 1930, included steady pressure from budget cutting legislators, there was no chance to realize the universalistic dream of the student movement -- whose Youth Act never got out of committee in Congress. Indeed, Congress's powerful conservative coalition sought to cut the existing youth programs, which led the students in June 1937 to rally behind the National Youth Administration, helping to stave off the threatened cuts. [23]

  • The NYA and the other New Deal youth programs did not survive the war years. With the Depression over (thanks to booming armament production), Congressional conservatives seized the opportunity to terminate the NYA in July 1943. Conservative southern Democrats played a critical role in this termination process, providing their Republican allies with the crucial votes needed to bury the NYA. These anti-New Deal southern politicians, most of whom were elected undemocratically through white primaries and general elections marred by poll taxes (which prevented many poor whites and African Americans from voting), killed the NYA despite overwhelming public support for that agency. Survey research indicated that 85% of southerners in the early 1940s thought the NYA should be continued as a regular department of the federal government. So did comparable percentages of northerners. [24]

  • These celestial approval ratings suggested that even though the NYA died, the idea of a federal role in aiding needy youth and promoting accessible public education would (because the New Deal had so effectively popularized it) live on long after the Depression ended. In fact, such generous idealism did not collapse with the NYA in 1943, but instead proved the most enduring legacy of the Roosevelt administration's New Deal for youth. This idealism, along with the precedents set under FDR for effective federal programs to aid the young, paved the way for the student aid provisions of the GI Bill following World War II, as well as the Headstart program, the work-study, and job training components of the Great Society reform programs of the 1960s. It was no accident that President Lyndon Johnson, who initiated the Great Society program, was himself an NYA veteran, who had served as that agency's state director in Texas. President Johnson "lovingly invoked" the NYA's memory as the spiritual ancestor of the Job Corps, Upward Bound and other Great Society" youth programs in the 1960s. [25] In our era, federal aid programs to youth and education may fall victim to new rounds of budget cutting, but such cuts are sure to evoke protests from those who, like Mrs. Roosevelt's young letter writers and the college student activists of the 1930s, look to the federal government as a protector of youth and guarantor of opportunity for the sons and daughters of lower income Americans.

    Endnotes

    1) Thomas Minehan, Boy and Girl Tramps of America. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1934.

    2) John Salmond, The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study, Duke University Press, 1967, p. 3; Homer Rainey, "Problems of Employment Among Youth." unpublished paper, New York: American Youth Commission, 1936, p. 1, Charles Taussig Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York; Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life, New York: Free Press, 1988, p. 140; Robert Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 16.

    3) Richard A. Reiman, The New Deal and American Youth: Ideas and Ideals in a Depression Decade. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992, p. 25. On the frustrations that social workers and other experts on child welfare felt about President Hoover's anemic response to the youth crisis, see Lela B. Costin, Two Sisters for Social Justice. A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 204-212.

    4) Betty and Ernest Lindley, A New Deal for Youth: the Story Of the National Youth Administration. New York: Viking Press, 1938; David Tyack, Robert Lowe, and Elisabeth Hansford, Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 92-138; George Rawick, ''The New Deal and Youth: The Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration and the American Youth Congress." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1957.

    5) Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin. New York: New American Library, 1971, pp. 477-519, 551-571, 698-721; Winifred D. Wandersee, "ER and American Youth: Politics and Personality in Bureaucratic Age," in Joan Hoff-Wilson and Marjorie Lightman (eds.), Without Precedent: The Life and Career of Eleanor Roosevelt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 63.

    6) Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, p. 698.

    7) Leila A. Sussmann, Dear FDR: A Study of Political Letter Writing. Totowa, NJ: Bedminster Press, 1963. The best published collection of the letters written by the public to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is Robert S. McElvaine, Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983, a work which is ideal for use by social studies teachers who need a rich collection of primary sources on the social history of the Great Depression.

    8) Note that to protect the privacy of the letter writers I am citing their initials and towns but not their names. Since the files in which these letters are kept is arranged alphabetically and chronologically in the FDR Library at Hyde Park, NY, these citations will enable interested researchers to locate the letters. M. B. to Eleanor Roosevelt (hereafter E.R.), Methuen, Massachusetts, March 31, 1935, E.R. Papers, Material Assistance Requested files, FDR Library Hyde Park, New York. Unless otherwise indicated, all letters to E.R. are from the Material Assistance Requested files in the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, FDR Library.

    9) A.M. to E.R., Salida, Colorado, May 7, 1935.

    10) O.C. to E.R., Milltown, NJ, March 25, 1935.

    11) Robert S. McElvaine, Down and Out in the Great Depression, p. 115.

    12) Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon, 1970, p. 47.

    13) M. A. to E.R., Mason, Wisconsin, Jan. 9, 1934.

    14) L.B. to E.R., Dows, Iowa, March 24, 1934; M.M.H. and E.A.B. to E.R., Lackawanna, New York, June 15, 1939.

    15) A.C. to E.R., Port Morris, New Jersey, March 20, 1934.

    16) E.B. to E.R., Bangor, Michigan, April 27, 1935.

    17) J.B. to E.R., Springfield, Mass., Nov. 30. 1937.

    18) D.B. to E.R., Greensboro, North Carolina, Feb. 12, 1938.

    19) William E. Leuchtenburg, "The Achievement of the New Deal," in Harvard Sitkoff (New York: Knopf, 1985, pp. 213-230.

    20) W.B. to E.R., Old Saybrook, Conn. July 27, 1938.

    21) Irving Bernstein, A Caring Society: The New Deal, The Worker, and the Great Depression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985, pp. 160-164.

    22) David Tyack, Public Schools in Hard Times, pp. 105, 129-131.

    23) Robert Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young, pp. 188-195.

    24) On the death of the NYA and the role that southern Democrats played in killing the youth agency, see George Rawick, "The New Deal and Youth," p. 273. On the undemocratic southern electoral practices (the poll tax and white primaries) which enabled Congressmen from Dixie to ignore the needs of black and poor white southerners in Depression America, see Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 62, 66, 106-108. On the overwhelming southern and national support for both the NYA and government aid to needy students, see Cooperative Study of Public Opinion in Regard to Youth and Education. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Commission and the American Institute of Public Opinion, Sept. 1940, Charles Taussig papers, FDR Library.

    25) Richard A. Reiman, The New Deal and American Youth, p. 194.