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[picture: Workers attending auto mechanics class organizanized by the National Youth Administration.]  The huge numbers of unemployed youth of the 1930s underscored several fears adults had for society. Conservatives saw disgruntled young people as a fertile ground for revolutionary politics while liberals mourned the disillusionment and apathy spreading among American youth. Educators feared that without some type of financial aid, colleges would suffer irreversible damage. ER worried that long-term unemployment and borderline poverty would undermine young Americans' faith in democracy. She told The New York Times that "I live in real terror 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."(1)

ER, working closely with educators and relief officials, pushed FDR to address this problem. Although at first FDR did not want to develop programs for young people, this lobbying effort changed his mind. In June 1935, he signed an executive order establishing the National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal program designed specifically to address the problem of unemployment among Depression-era youth.

[picture: a class on the Art of Self Defense at a local YMCA, 1936]The NYA sought to cope with this problem in two ways. First, the administration provided grants to high school and college students in exchange for work. This allowed young people to continue studying while at the same time preventing the pool of unemployed youth from getting any larger. Second, for those young people who were both unemployed and not in school, the NYA aimed to combine economic relief with on-the-job training in federally funded work projects designed to provide youth with marketable skills for the future. The latter was, by far, the more challenging of the NYA's tasks and, by 1937, the project had provoked some criticism for failing to provide adequate funding for job training. As a result, the administration shifted its emphasis to skills development in late 1937, the same year that it launched a special program of assistance for African Americans headed by Mary McLeod Bethune.

ER became the NYA's most public champion, often visiting NYA centers and praising its activities in her column. She took such joy in the program that when she discussed it in her autobiography, she took the rare step of taking credit for its creation. As she told her readers, "One of the ideas I agreed to present to Franklin was that of setting up a national youth administration. . . . It was one of the occasions on which I was very proud that the right thing was done regardless of political consequences." (2)

The NYA's priorities shifted once again in 1939 as unemployment began to wane and war gradually approached. For the next four years, the NYA emphasized skills training in defense-related industries. Despite the NYA's success, as wartime spending increased, Congress refused to continue funding the program and abolished the NYA in 1943.


  1. The New York Times, 7 May 1934, as quoted in Black, Casting Her Own Shadow.
  2. Eleanor Roosevelt, This I Remember (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 162-163.


Beasley, Maurine, Holly C. Schulman and Henry R. Beasley, eds. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001, 367-369.

Black, Allida. Casting Her Own Shadow: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of Postwar Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 29-33.

Graham, Otis L., Jr., and Meghan Robinson Wander. Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times. New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, 278-280.