"No greater obligation faces the government than to justify the faith of its young people in the fundamental rightness of our democratic institutions."
Franklin Roosevelt spoke those words in 1936 as he signed the extension of one of the New Deal's most innovative initiatives, the National Youth Administration (NYA). Part of the Works Progress Administration and lobbied for by Eleanor Roosevelt, the NYA was a response to the catastrophic levels of unemployment and poverty faced by young people during the Great Depression. More than just an economic relief program, the NYA was predicated on the belief that the economic devastation that young people faced would produce a "lost generation" that saw the American promise as a cruel lie.
Today, young people, particularly in urban America, face nothing less than a new Great Depression. The C.S. Mott Foundation's April 2010 report "Dire Straits in the Nation's Teen Labor Market," puts it this way: "The teen job market in most parts of the U.S. has essentially collapsed since 2000 … The teen unemployment rate in the first three months of 2010 was barely more than one-half of its value in 2000, the mark of a true depression in the nation's teen labor market."
When you look specifically at urban, African-American, male teen employment, even "Great Depression" seems inadequate. Nationally, only 1 in 7 black, male teens held any type of job from January to March 2010; fewer than 1 in 10 low-income black males were working in the first quarter of this year. These numbers underestimate those who have simply given up or are underemployed, and they miss that in places like Baltimore, there are neighborhoods with no legitimate job prospects for a young man.
I work with some of these young men in Baltimore. I teach the undereducated and miseducated, many of them intelligent young men who cling to a precarious belief in the American dream. Some are working diligently toward taking the GED exam. One of the GED tests is for knowledge of social studies and requires knowledge of civics, the American political and economic systems and American history, among other things. Students regularly master these concepts with study, but our discussions of these topics invariably produce a similar response.
"This has absolutely nothing to do with my life," my student Greg said after a discussion of Republican and Democratic economic platforms. "I get what they are saying, and I know this matters to some people, but, for real, this has absolutely nothing to do with what I go through." His response was typical.
This was not a narcissistic rejection of political awareness in favor of any number of distractions a young person can have today. These young men are not angry at being left out or left behind, but there is a political awareness, a cold indifference to the promised value implied in a basic education in American civic life.
In July, The New York Times' Louis Uchitelle wrote of the psychic changes 18-to-29-year-olds — the so called Millennials — faced with their similarly diminished job prospects. His focus in the article was on those young people with a college education who, while still optimistic about their prospects, had begun to change how they viewed themselves and their country. "The Great Depression damaged the self-confidence of the young, and that is beginning to happen now," Mr. Uchitelle reported.
For urban young men, it's more than a question of lost confidence. "The dramatic, historic collapse in teen labor markets needs to be openly and systematically addressed by the U.S. Congress, the Obama Administration, the nation's governors, its local elected officials, workforce development agencies, and educational agencies across the entire nation. The economic future of these young adults and our nation is at stake," the C.S. Mott Foundation concludes its report.
"I live in real terror," implored Eleanor Roosevelt in support of the New Deals' NYA, "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."
Fascism and Communism were the specters that haunted New Deal-era reformers when they worried about the psychic scars the Depression would leave on American youth. Today, we worry if we have enough police and prison space for our lost generation. We also often live in real terror of young people who have become unnecessary in our America — and who know it.
Michael Corbin works for the Fresh Start Program at the Living Classrooms Foundation. His e-mail is email@example.com.