restricted access 5. Playing Politics and Making Policy: Institutionalizing a Vision from New York to Washington
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124 5 Playing Politics and Making Policy Institutionalizing a Vision from New York to Washington That the New Deal attempted to solve the “youth problem” through constructive programs is indicative of the Administration’s recognition of the particular needs of people aged 18–25. Yet the narrow design of those programs demonstrated that the New Deal did not understand the problems facing youth, and this obligated activist youth to continually push for more. Ernest K. Lindley, a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, and his wife, Betty, who were hired by New Deal policymaker Charles Taussig to write the official history of the most significant New Deal youth program—the National Youth Administration (NYA)— argued in 1938 that as“destructive as enforced idleness may be at any age, it is likely to be most devastating to youth.”They feared that without relief programs, youth “may be a deadweight on the nation for a half century to come.”1 The Lindleys asserted that the emphasis of New Deal youth programs should not be on moral righteousness or a social duty to help young people, as it was for some of those involved in the development of youth policy, but rather on alleviating an economic strain and potential threat to the social order. Yet implicit in these programs was the acknowledgement that young people were society’s hope for the future.In a speech entitled “Youth Today Is Tomorrow’s Nation,” Eleanor Roosevelt declared “my generation has a responsibility for today’s youth which it cannot escape.”2 It was because youth policymakers, such as Eleanor Roosevelt , were concerned about young people’s futures and not just about the future of America, that young activists believed they could work with Playing Politics and Making Policy 125 New Dealers to construct programs that embodied their vision of a free, equal, and democratic American society. While they promoted a broader scope for the NYA and were quite willing to work within its structure to achieve their goals, they saw the NYA as a stopgap measure and thus advocated a permanent program to ensure full employment and educational opportunities to all young people as described in the American Youth Act they developed. Thus, activist youth recognized both the promise and the inadequacy of New Deal youth policy, and as political players, they sought to gain as much as they could for their constituents. Youth did not define their “problem” narrowly; Franklin Roosevelt’s Administration, however, did. Harry Hopkins aptly represented the Administration ’s position: what youth needed, as did so many Americans, was relief from the economic hardships of the Depression. New Deal historian William Leuchtenburg has argued that “Hopkins’ approach— which would get more men to work right away—had the greater appeal ” to FDR, in particular, who rarely conceptualized in anything more than economic terms in the early years of the New Deal.3 True, many problems could be at least partially solved with economic prosperity, unemployment chief among them. But this could offer no long-term safeguards against the future precarious position of youth, who insisted that the educational system had to be reformed to meet their needs. Rather than train elite young businessmen as captains of industry, for example, high school and college curricula should provide vocational training for the masses of young people. Charles Taussig, Chairman of the National Advisory Committee of the NYA, said, in sympathy with many young people, that “with all the progress in our educational technique, much of it is still based on a world which no longer exists and which has never existed for the younger generation.”4 This assessment merged neatly with young people’s perception of the educational system as outdated and overly influenced by conservative advocates of the status quo.Youth leaders maintained that the future of democracy and the future of education were inextricably interwoven.5 Meaningful educational opportunities, they maintained, were the first step to preventing fascism. Thinking in terms of their future (as well as future generations of youth), rather than only of immediate needs, young people were also adamant in their call for peace. Their annual strike against war stood as a reminder of the covenant signed—and ignored—by sixty-three nations to discard war as an instrument of national policy.6 The three key issues, then, around which youth rallied in trying to shape New Deal policy, were economic relief, 126 Implementing a Vision educational reform, and peace. To them, any viable youth policy had...


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