Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Cries for Help from Depression Youth

Robert Cohen

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 1934, 1-2). 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).
What Minehan had stumbled on during his research was just one part of the youth problem of the 1930s. Some 250,000 youths belonged to the homeless sector that Minehan 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 who directed the American Youth Commission, estimated that during the early Depression years, "40 percent of the youth (16-24) in the whole country are neither gainfully employed nor in schooquot; (Rainey 1936, 1).

Children below working age were utterly dependent on their parents, and when those parents were unemployed-as was common in this age of double-digit joblessness-hunger often resulted. Surveys revealed that a fifth of New York City's children suffered from malnutrition at the height of the Depression (Mintz and Kellogg 1988, 140). In the impoverished coal regions of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the malnutrition rate may have exceeded 90 percent.

Schools and colleges were also thrown into crisis. In 1932, declining tax revenues disrupted the education of at least a third of a million children in districts that lacked the funds to operate schools. Poverty forced some eighty thousand college students to drop out during the 1932-33 school year, making this the first peacetime period in the twentieth century when American college enrollments declined (Salmond 1967; Rainey 1936; Taussig; Mintz and Kellogg 1988).

Youth's Crisis Deepens
As the Depression deepened, many young people began looking to Washington for assistance. President Herbert Hoover, with his belief in limited government and economic individualism, proved unresponsive (Reiman 1992).1 Hoover did next to nothing to address the youth problem, even as it worsened in the waning days of his administration. The first Depression president's dismal 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 of his experimental and pragmatic New Deal program-created federal youth agencies and programs that 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 (Lindley and Lindley 1938; Tyack, Lowe, and Hansford 1984; Rawick 1957).

The high degree of public attention focused on 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, and her speeches and books to discuss the Depression's impact on the young (Lash 1971; Wandersee 1984). She also befriended leaders of America's left-leaning student movement, which arose on college campuses in the mid-1930s, and lobbied hard for expanded federal aid to youth and education.

Mrs. Roosevelt's activism on behalf of youth was rooted in her own humanitarianism and 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" (Roosevelt in Lash 1971, 698).

Letters from Unknown Children
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 help them personally. These feelings of intimacy and affection are reflected in the letters that young people sent the First Lady asking for material assistance. The letters, most of which came from needy youths, offer a unique window into the Depression experience-enabling us to see what it was like to be young and poor during the 1930s.
The most striking aspect of the letters to Mrs. Roosevelt from children and teenagers is their somberness and almost adult-like tone. Only a relative handful of letters (out of the 150 surveyed for this article) give any sense that their writers were experiencing childhood or adolescence as a time when play and other childlike pursuits took center stage. It was relatively rare to find letters asking for toys.

Even when they did request items that 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 their use for basic transportation rather than as playthings. For example, a young girl living in Massachusetts in 1935 wrote 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.2

By far the largest category of requests involved clothing. Both children and teens asked Mrs. Roosevelt for clothes-often specifying used garments-to help them keep warm and look respectable. Many cited dire need for such items to enable them to attend school. A thirteen-year-old girl from Arkansas began her letter to the First Lady in the winter of 1936:

I am writing you for some of your old soiled dress if you have any. 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.3

Although obviously embarrassed about asking for Mrs. Roosevelt's help, a fifteen-year-old girl from Albertville, Alabama, confided to her:

My life has been a story to me and most of the time a miserable one ... Mrs. Roosevelt don't think that I am begging, but that is all you can call it I guess ... Do you have any old clothes? ... I don't have a coat at all to wear ... [Your] clothes may be too large but I can cut them down so I can wear them.... I have three brothers that would appreciate any old clothes of your boys or husband. I wish you could see ... North Alabama now. The trees, grass, and everything is covered with ice and snow. It is a very pretty scene. But, oh how cold it is here. People can hardly stay comfortable.4

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."5 Similar malnutrition led an eleventh grader from Stillmore, Georgia, to have severe dental problems that would not receive attention unless Mrs. Roosevelt gave her money to see a dentist:

I wish to have my teeth attended to. I'm having a terrible time with two of my teeth.... My mouth gets sore and it hurts all the time. All my teeth are decayed except my front teeth and they are starting to decay. I can't have them fixed because my daddy hasn't the money to fix them and he only says teeth are supposed to come out sometime but this is all the teeth I'll ever have, I've shedded all the teeth I'm supposed to.6

Throughout the letters are stories of children who could not afford eyeglasses, medical operations, or even routine doctor visits. One such youth-a fourteen-year-old boy from Milltown, New Jersey-became so concerned about his health problems and his parent's inability to get him care that he sought it himself, as he 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].7

Feeling Poor
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 that 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 adults and children was that the latter were largely free from the self-blame and shame that were so common, at least initially, among their parents. Obviously, economic problems are not the fault of the child. ... The Depression's greatest psychological problem, then, was nearly absent in the young"(1983, 115).
A related theme, stressed in such oral histories as Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970), is that the 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."8

The children's letters to Mrs. Roosevelt suggest that the shame-free, guilt-free childhood described in Terkel's (1970) and McElvaine's (1983) books was far from universal. These letters indicate that many children and teens recognized that they were worse off than others, and felt shame about it. Two weeks after Christmas 1933 came a letter from Mason, Wisconsin, 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.9

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. When a fourteen-year-old Iowa girl requested clothes, she informed the First Lady that "the kids at school all make fun of you if you can't dress fine."10 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.11

Celebrations Without Joy
The sense of relative deprivation among poor children and teens was heightened during religious holidays and special school events in which whole communities gathered. Easter was especially painful for the poor because Americans customarily buy and wear new spring outfits for this holiday: "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.12

Graduations were probably the worst events for the poor. Impoverished students had worked hard for years to get through school on a shoestring, but then found themselves unable to afford what was needed to participate in the graduation ceremonies. One of the most frequent requests the young made of the First Lady was for dress clothes (and sometimes caps, gowns, and class rings) for graduation ceremonies. Explained a Michigan girl in 1935:

I graduate this year and I haven't enough money to buy a dress. I give all I earn for food for the family. I hate to go on the stage with the other girls in my shabby dress.13

As far as guilt is concerned, adults did bear the greatest share of it when family income collapsed in the face of unemployment; 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. Poor youths knew that they represented additional mouths to feed, and that, even if they worked, they earned too little to support themselves. Wrote a sixteen-year-old girl from Springfield, Massachusetts:

Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I am a girl sixteen years old. 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 do, because we could not afford 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 layed 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.14

Another characteristic of many of the letters to Mrs. Roosevelt should give pause to anyone who thinks that youth shielded poor children from feelings of shame. The letters contain frequent, elaborate, and even vehement pleas for the First Lady to keep 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.15
Faith in the First Lady
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. With a touching naiveté, these youths often seemed to expect that Mrs. Roosevelt would personally fulfill their requests for 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. Whereas, 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 and roads, funding schools and students, insuring banks, bringing electricity to the countryside, and rendering an almost endless variety of other useful forms of assistance (Leuchtenburg 1985).

Faith in Mrs. Roosevelt and the beneficence of the federal government during the New Deal years crossed regional, religious, ethnic, and racial lines. The children who penned 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 girquot; 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.16

Sadly, Mrs. Roosevelt could not personally meet the individual requests of most of these youths. The tens of thousands of letters she received from both adults and children pleading for material aid made it virtually impossible for her to render such personal assistance. But although she would disappoint most of 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) in 1935.

The New Deal's Youth Record
Between 1936 and 1943, more than two million students worked on National Youth Administration projects (including more than 10 percent of the total college student population). This experience 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 its out-of-school job program. It was the New Deal's most racially egalitarian aid program: 12.9 percent of the high school jobs and 13.6 percent of the out-of-school jobs were given to nonwhites (Bernstein 1985).
This was an impressive youth record, especially compared with the previous administration's. The NYA funded close to five million needy youths, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) another 2.6 million. In addition to this employment assistance, the New Deal supported poor boys and girls through the Social Security Administration's Aid to Dependent Children program. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) prevented some four thousand school closings by funding teacher salaries ($14 million worth) in America's poorest states. New Deal dollars funded a free school lunch program, 70 percent of all new school construction from 1933-39, and more than two thousand nursery schools (Tyack et al. 1984).

Although they appreciated this record, many youths in Depression America wanted the New Deal to do even more on behalf of needy young people and equal educational opportunity. For example, America's leftist-led student movement called a march on Washington in February 1937 to demand aid for all needy students. This "Youth Pilgrimage for Jobs and Education" sponsored and urged Congress to pass the American Youth Act, which would have provided every low-income student with access to work-study funds, and ensured that no American would have to drop out of school because of poverty.

The student protesters rightly pointed out that the demand for NYA jobs was always far greater than was the supply, and that 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 1930s included steady pressure from budget-cutting conservatives-there was no chance to realize this 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 NYA, helping to stave off threatened cuts.

The NYA and the other New Deal youth programs did not survive the war years. With the Depression over (thanks to booming production), congressional conservatives seized the opportunity to terminate the NYA in July 1943. Conservative southern Democrats played a critical role in this process, providing their Republican allies with the crucial votes needed to bury the NYA. These anti-New Deal southern politicians, most of whom were chosen undemocratically through white primaries and general elections marred by poll taxes (which prevented many poor whites as well as African Americans from voting), killed the NYA despite overwhelming public support for that agency. Survey research (carried out by the American Youth Commission in cooperation with the American Institute of Public Opinion) indicated that 85 percent 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.17

These celestial approval ratings suggested that-even if the NYA died-the idea of a federal role in aiding needy youth and promoting accessible public education would 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. Along with the precedents set under FDR for effective federal programs to aid the young, it paved the way for the student-aid provisions of the GI Bill following World War II, as well as Headstart and other Great Society reforms 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 the 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" (Reiman 1992, 194) youth programs in the 1960s. In our more conservative 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.

1On the frustrations that social workers and other experts on child welfare felt about President Hoover's anemic response to the youth crisis, see Costin 1983, 204-12.

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

3 L.H. to E.R., Granette, Ark., November 2, 1936

4 M.I. to E.R., Albertville, Ala., January 1, 1936.

5 A.M. to E.R., Salida, Colo., May 7, 1935.

6 M.W.S. to E.R., Stillmore, Ga., October 14, 1936.

7O.C. to E.R., Milltown, N.J., March 25, 1935.

8 Terkel 1970, 47.

9 M.A. to E.R., Mason, Wis., January 9, 1934.

10 L.B. to E.R., Dows, Iowa, March 24, 1934.

11 M.M.H. and E.A.B. to E.R., Lackawanna, N.Y., June 15, 1939.

12 A.C. to E.R., Port Morris, N.J., March 20, 1934.13E.B. to E.R., Bangor, Mich., April 27, 1935.

14 J.B. to E.R., Springfield, Mass., November 30, 1937. Also on guilt among jobless youth, see Lindley and Lindley 1938, 21.

15 D.B. to E.R., Greensboro, N.C., February 12, 1938.

16W.B. to E.R., Old Saybrook, Conn., July 27, 1938.17On the death of the NYA and the role that southern Democrats played in killing the youth agency, see Rawick 1957, 273. On the undemocratic southern electoral practices (the poll tax and white primaries) that enabled Congressmen from Dixie to ignore the needs of black and poor white southerners in Depression America, see Sullivan 1996, 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, September 1940, and Charles Taussig papers.References
Bernstein, Irving. A Caring Society: The New Deal, The Worker, and the Great Depression. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Cohen, Robert. When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.Cooperative Study of Public Opinion in Regard to Youth and Education. Washington, D.C.: American Youth Commission and the American Institute of Public Opinion, 1940.Costin, Lela B. Two Sisters for Social Justice: A Biography of Grace and Edith Abbott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: New American Library, 1971.Leuchtenburg, William E. "The Achievement of the New Deal." In Fifty Years Later: The New Deal Evaluated, edited by Harvard Sitkoff, 213-30. New York: Knopf, 1985. Lindley, Betty, and Ernest K. Lindley. A New Deal for Youth: the Story of the National Youth Administration. New York: Viking Press. 1938.McElvaine, Robert S. Down and Out in the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.Minehan, Thomas. Boy and Girl Tramps of America. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1934.Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 1988.Rainey, Homer. "Problems of Employment Among Youth." Unpublished paper in the Taussig Papers (see below). American Youth Commission, New York, 1936.Rawick, George. "The New Deal and Youth: The Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration and the American Youth Congress." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1957.Reiman, Richard A. The New Deal and American Youth: Ideas and Ideals in a Depression Decade. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.Salmond, John. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967.Sullivan, Patricia. Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.Taussig, Charles. Papers. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.Terkel, Studs. Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon, 1970.Tyack, David, Robert Lowe, and Elisabeth Hansford. Public Schools in Hard Times: The Great Depression and Recent Years. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.Wandersee, Winifred D. "ER and American Youth: Politics and Personality in a Bureaucratic Age." In Without Precedent: The Life and Career of Eleanor Roosevelt, edited by Joan Hoff-Wilson and Marjorie Lightman, 63-87. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Robert Cohen is Associate Professor of Social Studies Education and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He is the author of When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941. (Oxford University Press)