How Not to Lose the Lockdown Generation

Lessons from the New Deal point the way forward in the era of Covid-19.

Civilian Conservation Corps recruits arrive to set up their first reforestation work camp, Powell's Fort, Virginia, April 18, 1933. The CCC was a New Deal-era massive environmental improvement program that recruited nearly 3 million young American men from 1933-1942.
Civilian Conservation Corps recruits arrive to set up their first reforestation work camp at Powell's Fort, Va., on April 18, 1933. Photo: New York Times Co./Getty Images

Picture this: You live in rural Arkansas and tragedy strikes. A family member has fallen ill with that contagious respiratory illness that has already killed so many — but you don’t have enough space in your small home to quarantine them in a room of their own. Your relative’s case doesn’t appear to be life-threatening, but you are terrified that their persistent cough will spread the illness to more vulnerable family members. You call the local public health authority to see if there is room in local hospitals, and they explain that they are all stretched too thin with emergency cases. There are private facilities, but you can’t afford those.


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Not to worry, you are told: A crew will be by shortly to set up a sturdy, well-ventilated, portable, tiny house in your yard. Once installed, your family member will be free to convalesce in comfort. You can deliver home-cooked meals to their door and communicate through open windows — and a trained nurse will be by for regular examinations. And no, there will be no charge for the house.

This is not a dispatch from some future functional United States, one with a government capable of caring for its people in the midst of spiraling economic carnage and a public health emergency. It’s a dispatch from this country’s past, a time eight decades ago when it similarly found itself in the two-fisted grip of an even deeper economic crisis (the Great Depression), and a surging contagious respiratory illness (tuberculosis).

Yet the contrast between how U.S. state and federal government met those challenges in the 1930s, and how they are failing so murderously to meet them now, could not be starker. Those tiny houses are just one example, but they are a revelatory one for the sheer number of problems those humble structures attempted to solve at once.

Known as “isolation huts,” the little clapboard houses were distributed to poor families in several states. Small enough to fit on the back of a trailer, they had just enough space for a bed, chair, dresser, and stove, and were outfitted with large screened-in windows and shutters to maximize the flow of fresh air and sunshine — considered essential for TB recovery.

As physical structures, the TB huts were an elegant answer to the public health challenges posed by crowded homes on the one hand and expensive private sanatoriums on the other. If houses were unable to accommodate safe patient quarantines, then the state, with Washington’s help, would just bring an addition to those houses for the duration of the illness.

It’s worth letting that sink in, given the learned helplessness that pervades the U.S. today. For months, the White House hasn’t been able to figure out how to roll out free Covid-19 tests at anything like the scale required, let alone contact tracing, never mind quarantine support for poor families. Yet in the 1930s, during a much more desperate economic time for the country, state and federal agencies cooperated to deliver not just free tests but free houses.

And that is only the beginning of what makes it worth dwelling on the TB huts . The cabins themselves were built by very young men in their late teens and early 20s who were out of work and had signed up for the National Youth Administration. “The State Board of Health furnishes the materials for these cottages and NYA supplies the labor,” explained Betty and Ernest Lindley, authors of  a 1938 history of the program. “The total average cost of one hut is $146.28,” or about $2,700 in today’s dollars.

The TB cabins were just one of thousands upon thousands of projects taken on by the 4.5 million young people who joined the NYA: a vast program started in 1935 that paired young people in economic need, who could not find jobs in the private sector, with publicly minded work that needed doing. They gained marketable skills, while earning money that allowed many to stay, or return to, high school or college. Other NYA projects including building some of the country’s most iconic urban parks, repairing thousands of dilapidated schools and outfitting them with playgrounds; and stocking classrooms with desks, lab tables, and maps the young workers had made and painted themselves. NYA workers built huge outdoor pools and artificial lakes, trained to be teaching and nursing aides, and even built entire youth centers and small schools from scratch, often while living together in “resident centers.”

A group of men planting trees during a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project on the Nett Lake Reservation in Minnesota.    (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

A group of men planting trees during a Civilian Conservation Corps project on the Nett Lake Reservation in Minnesota.

Photo: MPI/Getty Images

The NYA served as a kind of urban complement to FDR’s better-known youth program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, launched two years earlier. The CCC employed some 3 million young men from poor families to work in forests and farms: planting more than 2 billion trees, shoring up rivers from erosion, and building the infrastructure for hundreds of state parks. They lived together in a network of camps, sent money home to their families, and put on weight at a time when malnutrition was epidemic. Both the NYA and the CCC served a dual purpose: directly helping the young people involved, who found themselves in desperate straights, and meeting the country’s most pressing needs, whether for reforested lands or more hands in hospitals.

Like all New Deal programs, the NYA and CCC were stained by racial segregation and discrimination. And the gender roles were — let’s just say that the girls discovered they could sew, can, and heal; and the boys discovered they could plant, build, and weld. Black girls in particular were streamed into domestic work.

Yet the scale of these two programs, which together altered the lives of well over 7 million young people over the course of a decade, puts contemporary governments to shame. Today, millions upon millions of young people are beginning their adulthood with the ground collapsing beneath their feet. The service jobs so many young adults depend on for rent and to pay off student debt have vanished. Many of the industries they had hoped to enter are firing, not hiring. Internships and apprenticeships have been canceled via mass emails, and promised job offers have been revoked.

These economic losses, combined with the decision of many colleges and universities to close residences and move online, have abruptly severed countless young adults from their support systems, pushed many into homelessness, and others back into their childhood bedrooms. Many of the homes young people now find themselves in are under severe economic strain and are not safe or welcoming, with LGBTQ youth at heightened risk.

All of this is layered on top of the pain of the virus itself, which has spread grief and loss through millions of families. And that is now mixing with the trauma of tremendous police violence directed at crowds of mostly young Black Lives Matter demonstrators, compounding the murderous events that precipitated the protests in the first place. In the background, as always, is the shadow of climate breakdown, not to mention the fact that when members of this generation first heard terms like “lockdown” and “shelter in place” related to the pandemic, many of their minds immediately turned to the terrorizing active shooter drills U.S. schools have had them practicing since early childhood.

It should be little wonder, then, that depression, anxiety, and addiction are ravaging young lives.

According to a survey conducted by National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau last month, 53 percent of people aged 18-29 reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. Fifty-three percent. That’s more than 13 percentage points higher than the rest of the population, which itself was off the charts compared with this time last year.

And that still may be a dramatic undercount. Mental Health America, part of the National Health Council, released a report in June based on surveys of nearly 5 million Americans. It found that “younger populations including teens and young adults (25<) are being hit particularly hard” by the pandemic, with 90 percent “experiencing symptoms of depression.”

Some of that suffering is finding expression in another invisible crisis of the Covid era: a dramatic increase in drug overdoses, with some parts of the country reporting increases over last year of 50 percent. It should all be a reminder that when we talk about being in the midst of a cataclysm on par with the Great Depression, it isn’t only GDP and employment rates that are depressed. Huge numbers of people are depressed as well, particularly young people.

This is, of course, a global crisis. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned that the world faces “a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.” In a video message, he said, “We are at a defining moment for the world’s children and young people. The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come.”

As in the 1930s, this generation is already being referred to as a “lost generation” — but compared to the Great Depression, almost nothing is being done to find them, certainly not at the governmental level in the U.S. There are no ambitious and creative programs being designed to offer steady income beyond expanded summer job programs, and nothing designed to arm them with useful skills for the Covid and climate change era. All Washington has offered is a temporary break on student loan repayments, set to expire this fall.

Young people are discussed, of course. But it is almost exclusively to shame them for Covid partying. Or to debate (usually in their absence) the question of whether or not they will be permitted to learn in-person in classrooms, or whether they will have to stay home, glued to screens. Yet what the Depression era teaches us is that these are not the only possible futures we should be considering for people in their late teens and 20s, especially as we come to grips with the reality that Covid-19 is going to be reshaping our world for a long time to come. Young people can do more than go to school or stay home; they can also contribute enormously to the healing of their communities.

While guest hosting Intercepted this week, I dug into what it would take to launch youth employment programs on the scale on the NYA and CCC — programs that, like their predecessors, addressed broad social needs while giving young people cash, skills training, and opportunities to work and possibly live in each other’s company. Put another way: What are the modern day equivalents of the home-delivered, NYA-built tuberculosis isolation hut?

Delving back in the history of New Deal youth programs, I was struck by how many of its projects have direct application to today’s most urgent needs. For instance, the NYA made huge and historic contributions to the country’s educational infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on low-income school districts, while training many young women as teaching assistants. It also provided significant reinforcements for an ailing public health system, training battalions of young people to serve as nursing aides in public hospitals.

QUEENS, NEW YORK - MARCH 30: Two members of the Fire Department of New Yorks Emergency Medical Team wheel in a patient with potentially fatal coronavirus to the Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City on March 30, 2020. New York City is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, putting historic pressure on a world-renowned healthcare system as the number of confirmed cases and deaths in the area grows. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Two members of the Fire Department of New York’s Emergency Medical Team wheel in a patient with potentially fatal coronavirus to the Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City on March 30, 2020.

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

It’s easy to imagine how similar programs today could simultaneously address the youth unemployment crisis and play a significant role in battling the virus. As just one example: We sure could use some of those nursing aides if there is a new surge of the virus this winter. A New York Times investigation last month quoted several doctors and nurses who are convinced that significant numbers of the Covid-19 deaths that took place in New York’s public hospitals could have been prevented if they had been adequately staffed. In emergency rooms where the patient-to-nurse ratio should not have been higher than 4 to 1, one public hospital was trying to get by with 23 to 1; others weren’t doing much better. Nightmare stories have emerged of disoriented patients pulling themselves off of oxygen machines and other vital equipment, trying to get up, and with no one there to stop them, dying alone. More nurses would have made all the difference.

Then there are the public schools, similarly understaffed after decades of cutbacks, that will be trying to enforce social distancing this year. If we weren’t in such a rush to get back to a bleak and diminished version of “normal,” there would be time for a NYA-style program to train thousands of young adults to help reduce class sizes and supervise kids in outdoor education programs.

And since we know that the safest place to gather is still outdoors, some college-age students could pick up the work begun by the NYA and expand the national infrastructure of trails, picnic areas, outdoor pools, campsites, urban parks, and wilderness trails. Thousands more could be enrolled in a rebooted CCC to restore forests and wetlands, helping draw planet-warming carbon out of the atmosphere.

Creating these kinds of programs would be complex, and costly. But the individual and collective benefits would be immeasurable. And as was the case during the Great Depression, many young people would be given the chance to do something they desperately want and need to do right now: Get the hell out of their childhood homes and live with their peers.

On Intercepted, I spoke about this prospect with Neil Maher, professor of history at Rutgers University–Newark and the author of a definitive history of the Civilian Conservation Corps, “Nature’s New Deal.” He told me that in his research into the CCC, he came across many participants describing their time in the program as a kind of sleepaway camp or even an outdoor university: a unique chance to live collectively, away from their families and the city, and become adults. But unlike so many actual university campuses that can’t reopen safely — given the daily commutes of faculty, staff, and many students — modern-day CCC-inspired camps could be designed as Covid “bubbles.”

The program would have to test participants on the way in, quarantine anyone who tested positive for two weeks, and then everyone would stay at the camp until the job was done (or at least their part of it). It could be that rare triple win: Heal some of the damage done to our ravaged planet, offer an economic and social lifeline to people in need, and design what might be one of the most Covid-safe workplaces around.

In the panic about this “lost generation,” there has been a lot of talk about how there is no work for young people. But that is a lie. There is no end of meaningful work that desperately needs doing — in our schools, hospitals, and on the land. We just need to create the jobs.

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