"A great promise and a great threat": Milwaukee children in the Great Depression

Daryl Webb, Marquette University


In the first decades of the twentieth century child advocates defined the ideal childhood. They argued that each child needed a stable home life, a quality education, and to be protected from the exploitation of work. Adults additionally, asserted that children needed the proper guidance to help them transition from childhood to maturity. Between 1900 and 1929, adults created laws, policies, and institutions to ensure boys and girls had proper childhood. The Great Depression robbed many children of this model life, causing reformers grave alarm. They turned to the federal government for assistance and used New Deal programs to aid the poorest children, end most forms of child labor, provide many jobless youth employment, and improve the education system. Adults saw the New Deal as a vital component in returning the model childhood to the nation's youngest citizens. While these efforts helped they were not enough. By the mid-1930s idle children were committing crimes in record numbers, forcing juvenile justice officials to devise a low-cost crime-fighting strategy. They passed resolutions protecting girls and boys from bad influences such as salacious movies. They also used federal money to create the Toy Loan Project, which lent poor children toys to keep them out of trouble. The Great Depression also turned many children into activists. Needy children worked to change school culture so it was more accommodating to underprivileged students and sculpted the New Deal to meet their needs. Middle class youngsters contributed to charities that aided the poor and led the peace movement. As the Great Depression came to a close, adults believed that children had become radicals and criminals. In response, adults redefined citizenship so it emphasized American ideals and loyalty. While educators taught this new concept of citizenship, government officials began preparing youth to defend the nation. By the late 1930s, as the threat of fascism grew, children turned away from the anti-war movement to embrace the new patriotism. The approaching war also revitalized the economy and reformers saw the ideal childhood return to many children.

Recommended Citation

Webb, Daryl, ""A great promise and a great threat": Milwaukee children in the Great Depression" (2006). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3256641.