Children and Adolescents, Impact of the Great Depression on

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The 1930s marked a seminal decade in the history of American childhood. The onset of the Great Depression hit children and adolescents hard, but at the same time new policies and changing public attitudes signaled positive changes for America's youngest citizens. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Americans had been moving toward a new definition of childhood and adolescence. Modern childhood was viewed as a period distinct from adulthood and separate from adult responsibilities. For over one hundred years, longer life expectancy and declining birth rates had lowered children's proportion of the total U.S. population. In 1830, individuals nineteen years of age and under (the U.S. Census Bureau's definition of children) constituted 56 percent of the country's population with a national median age of 16.7. In 1930, children's proportion of the total population had declined to 38 percent, and the nation's median age rose to 26.4. The economic Depression of the 1930s led many couples to have even fewer children, and a growing number of young men who were unable to find employment postponed marriage. By 1940, individuals under twenty years of age made up only 36 percent of the nation's total population, and the country's median age had risen to 29. Interestingly, as children and adolescents became a smaller proportion of the nation's total population, they became a more visible part of public policy and American culture. Changes in public policy and culture that took place during the 1930s established a universal definition of American childhood for the balance of the twentieth century.


Before the onset of the Great Depression, children's diminished share of the total population paralleled a general improvement in their lives. An estimated U.S. infant mortality rate of 130 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1900 fell to 85.8 deaths in 1920 and to 64.6 in 1930. By 1930 most states had passed compulsory school attendance laws for those under sixteen, established public high schools (although many were segregated), and placed restrictions on the industrial employment of young people under fourteen years of age. In addition, medical science had made great strides in treating and preventing childhood diseases such as diarrhea, rickets, and diphtheria.

Child welfare experts attending President Herbert Hoover's 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection pointed to the progress that had been made for American children. In his opening address, Hoover waxed sympathetic about the value of children, but there were few positive results from the 1930 conference. The Hoover administration seemed to turn a blind eye to the worsening economic conditions for youngsters and their families. Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, a medical doctor, argued in 1932 that the economic Depression could actually be good for children. Families with less money to spend, Wilbur concluded, would be forced to depend upon each other and live a more wholesome home life.

It was obvious to many others that a growing number of American children and their families were living in miserable conditions during the worsening economic crisis. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933 it was clear that children were experiencing some of the Depression's worst consequences. While the national divorce rate did not rise, desertion became more common. Although infant mortality rates had continued to fall during 1931 and 1932, they were climbing again by 1933 for the first time since such data had been collected in the United States. With unemployment rates at 25 percent, many families that had been middle-class during the 1920s slipped into poverty, contributing to rising incidence of hunger and malnutrition among children and adolescents. Psychological stress on adults resulted in domestic violence and child abuse. School districts ran out of money, classrooms became more crowded, school years were shortened, and many young people dropped out of school to seek work. Cash strapped business owners and parents ignored or intentionally violated existing child labor laws. Franklin Roosevelt noted that one-third of America's citizens were ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. Of those, the majority were children.


Child welfare advocates attending the U.S. Children's Bureau's Child Health Recovery Conference on October 6, 1933, called for emergency food relief, school lunch programs, funds to pay the salaries of public nurses, and reimbursement plans to pay private physicians to care for needy children. Government officials from the U.S. Children's Bureau and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) told attendees that more than six million children lived in families on federal and state relief. Responding to conference recommendations, the FERA and Children's Bureau quickly implemented the Child Health Recovery Program (CHRP). This two-year effort concentrated on providing emergency food and medical care to America's poorest children, especially those living in rural areas. In the end CHRP did not live up to advocates' ambitious expectations, but it marked the first New Deal relief program directed at children and the first established at the federal level to help the nation's youngest citizens.

The 1935 Social Security Act was the New Deal's next generation of programs and its most ambitious. Besides the better known old-age pension plan, the 1935 Social Security Act included three specific programs for children: Titles IV, V, and VII. Title IV, the Aid to Dependent Children program (ADC, later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children), replaced the widely varied state-based mothers' pension systems. As state governments ran out of money for mothers' pensions, families turned to FERA welfare funds. This circumstance ran contrary to the U.S. Children's Bureau's established argument that mothers' pension recipients were entitled to long-term aid, not simply emergency unemployment relief. Pension advocates wanted to keep mothers at home with their children and out of the wage-labor force. The federal ADC program was founded on this philosophy. It initially defined those eligible for aid as any child under sixteen who lived with a parent or close relative as caregiver, but had no breadwinner in the home. Amendments to Title IV in 1939 expanded the program to sixteen and seventeen year olds. ADC established the idea that in the absence of parental support, the federal government was ultimately responsible for needy children. States provided additional allotments to match federal ADC funds, but payments were meager and caregivers (mostly single mothers) received no stipend for their own support. This situation left ADC families in perpetual poverty. Furthermore, at the state level many blacks and minorities, as well as youngsters' whose mothers were judged as "immoral," found themselves denied aid. Over time the debate concerning who "deserved" ADC made it the most controversial part of the Social Security Act.

Title V of the Social Security Act provided federal money for maternal and child health care for needy women and children. Title V was the only health care program included in the 1935 act, making poor children and pregnant mothers the only recipients of federally subsidized health care until passage of the 1965 Medicare Act.

Title VII focused on young people with "special needs." The Children's Bureau estimated that there were approximately 300,000 orphaned, abandoned, or physically and/or mentally handicapped children living in the United States who were dependent on the state for their support. By 1935, only one-fourth of the states had established county welfare boards to look after the needs of such children. Title VII made the health and well-being of dependent children a joint federal-state responsibility.

The Great Depression also focused attention on adolescents. In 1933, the Children's Bureau estimated that 23,000 adolescents traveled the country riding the rails and hitchhiking along highways in search of work. While some were females, most adolescent "hobos" were males. Many felt they were a burden on their already strapped families and hit the road to find work. The unemployment rate for American boys sixteen to twenty years of age was twice that of adults. Many people were sympathetic to the plight of unemployed youth, but some also charged that homeless boys were dangerous juvenile delinquents. The infamous Scottsboro Boys' case, in which nine black youths were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931, and other high-profile criminal trials fueled such fears. In March 1933 Congress established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). For the next nine years the CCC employed more than 2.5 million males aged seventeen through twenty-three. Enrollees built recreational facilities and engaged in land conservation work. Life in the CCC was regimented and many officials enforced Jim Crow rules within the camps. CCC participants sometimes served as scapegoats for local community problems, but overall, the CCC was one of the New Deal's most popular relief efforts, ending only after U.S. entrance into World War II.

Like the CCC, the National Youth Administration (NYA, 1935–1943) was also a popular New Deal program directed at American youth. As a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the NYA provided part-time work-relief for high school and college-aged students, as well as full-time jobs for unemployed young people no longer in school. The NYA was open to both males and females and had a Division of Negro Affairs headed by Mary McLeod Bethune. Like the CCC, it was a popular program that ended only after the United States entered World War II. Another WPA program, day nursery schools, actually expanded during World War II. Organized to provide jobs for unemployed teachers, these high quality preschools opened to children of all races and set the standard for preschool education throughout the United States.

Another side of the New Deal focused on getting young people out of the wage-labor force. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act successfully wrote child labor restrictions into federal law for the first time. It outlawed the employment of individuals under sixteen in the manufacture of goods shipped across state lines. It also set regulations for the employment of sixteen and seventeen year olds, and prohibited all minors from working in specific industries. The law ignored young people who worked in agriculture or domestic service, but the economic crisis of the 1930s increased pressure on politicians to end child labor. For the first time in history, American children were expected to spend more of their time in school than on the job.


This fact underscores the new status of childhood by the 1930s. Popular radio shows appealed to young consumers, even during dire economic times. Films featuring the "Our Gang" kids, and child stars such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Shirley Temple depicted an idealized childhood absent from adult responsibilities. Children's lives on the big screen were filled with activities experienced with peers, not adults. By the late 1930s a majority of seventeen year olds attended high school for the first time in the nation's history. The quality of schools varied widely, but communities accepted the notion that education through high school was a public responsibility.

The shift to high schools as a universal experience for American adolescents reinforced the development of a distinct youth culture. Dating moved adolescent boys and girls far from the watchful eyes of parents. Clubs such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Young Men's Christian Association, Young Women's Christian Association, Young Men's Hebrew Association, and the Department of Agriculture's 4-H Clubs gained new members. Racial and ethnic segregation persisted, but comic books and other "kid" centered aspects of popular culture crossed social divisions. Highlighting the significance of youth culture, a 1941 article in Popular Science introduced the word teenager into the American print vocabulary. The important matter of growing up became the focus for most children and teens. The economic crisis somewhat hindered the development of a commercialized youth culture dancing to the rhythm of swing music, but the concentration of most young people into high schools strengthened the trend.

The dramatic crisis that engaged Americans during the 1930s clearly shaped the lives of children and youth. Individuals who grew up during the Great Depression were also the first generation to experience a government that recognized a federal responsibility for protecting and shaping the lives of the nation's youngest citizens. Racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination persisted, but the idea that every child should have the right to basic economic security, a childhood separate from adult responsibilities, and a high school education was accepted as an American entitlement.



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Kriste Lindenmeyer

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Children and Adolescents, Impact of the Great Depression on

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