National Youth Administration (NYA)
NATIONAL YOUTH ADMINISTRATION (NYA)
When in May 1934 Eleanor Roosevelt admitted her fear that the United States was in danger of losing a whole generation of young people, there was good reason for her anxiety. Available statistics indicated that as many as 50 percent of Americans between sixteen and twenty-four years old who were in the labor market were unemployed. Unskilled and untrained, they were seemingly incapable of becoming productive adults. Though the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration had moved swiftly to deal with the worst aspects of the problem, most notably with the creation in 1933 of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), these first measures were little more than stopgaps, catering to the most desperate cases only. The National Youth Administration (NYA) was the New Deal's attempt to combat the problem of youth unemployment on a more long-term basis.
Created by executive order on June 26, 1935, as part of the new Works Progress Administration (WPA), the NYA had twin functions from the start. One goal was to help needy young people stay in school or in college, enabling them both to develop their skills and talents and to keep out of the hopelessly swollen labor market. The second, more difficult function was to provide assistance to young people no longer in school, but out of work. Such youths needed both immediate relief and job training that would be useful once recovery came. To head the new agency, Roosevelt selected the out-spoken Southern liberal Aubrey Willis Williams. Already the WPA's deputy-director, Williams remained the NYA's head throughout its existence. Clearly identified with the New Deal's left wing, Williams was determined to use the new agency to help black youths and white youths equally. Symbolic of this commitment was the early appointment of the distinguished black educator Mary McLeod Bethune to an important position in the agency's administrative structure.
The student work program was relatively easy to organize. It was largely run by the schools and colleges themselves, and by early 1937 more than 400,000 young people were receiving regular stipends in return for performing useful tasks on their various campuses. In all, more than two million young people completed their education while receiving NYA assistance. The program for out-of-school youth was more difficult to manage. The first work projects were often high-labor low-capitaloutlay affairs like cleaning up public buildings or developing local parks. Such projects were useful to the communities involved, but failed to impart practical job skills. As soon as possible, therefore, Williams redirected the NYA's emphasis into the acquirement of permanent skills, and, after 1939, even more specifically into training youth for defense industry work. As such, the NYA introduced its enrollees to machines, gave them basic shop training, and then poured them into the nation's rapidly reviving industrial plants. By 1942 the NYA had become a crucial adjunct to the war effort, something thousands of employers all over the country enthusiastically attested to.
Congress abolished the NYA in 1943 over the president's strenuous objections. The program was a victim of the drive to prune federal expenditures to the bone, but its cancellation was also an expression of distaste for Williams as a symbol of extreme New Dealism. The accomplishments of the NYA had been numerous, however, and it remains one of the best examples of what enlightened, committed people can achieve when they have the public behind them, if only for a short time.
Jacobson, Paul B. "Youth at Work." Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals 25, no. 99 (1941): 114–119.
Lindley, Ernest K., and Betty Lindley. A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration. 1938. Reprint, 1972.
Reiman, Richard A. The New Deal and American Youth: Ideas and Ideals in a Depression Decade. 1992.
Salmond, John A. A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Willis Williams, 1890–1965. 1983.
John A. Salmond