A group of Gutter Punks’ tribute to their predecessors. But are they the same?

The Gutter Punks I met in New Orleans aren’t the first generation of young people to escape from conventional society by hopping a freight car out of town. How do they compare to their peers from the past, I wanted to know. There are some strong similarities between these kids and the teenagers who chose the same life during the Depression.

When I got back from my trip to New Orleans, I found a book about Depression-era teenagers riding the rails ( Riding The Rails: Teenagers On The Move During The Great Depression Routlege 2003) In it, the author Errol Lincoln Uys estimated that the 250,000 teenagers who hopped trains then did so either because they felt as though they were a burden to their struggling families, or because there was no work for them in the towns where they lived.

Uys noted that during the Depression, one in seven children under the age of eighteen were living in families who were “on relief.” As we approach the fourth year of the great recession, the number of children living in poverty is edging close to 25 percent, or one in four. The government considers a family of four to be impoverished if they take in less than $22,000 a year.

In the Depression, the nationwide unemployment rate topped out at 25 percent; currently the unemployment rate for those under the age of 25 is 19 percent, but 50.1 percent for African-American youth.

Uys also noted that a third of Depression-era teenagers didn’t graduate from high school. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2008 that nationwide a quarter of teenagers don’t graduate from high school, but that varies dramatically from state to state. In Nevada, only 51 percent graduate, while in Wisconsin the percentage is close to 90.

As I was reading, I was moved by the sentence where Uys described kids who wanted to go to school back in the 1930s, but found that “the school house doors were locked” because communities didn’t have the money to keep their schools open. Then I looked to see how the state and local government budget cuts had affected the school day and the school year now. I found many press reports of school districts dramatically reducing the school calendar and the length of the school day, as well as increasing the class size substantially. In California, 60 percent of the school districts have been compelled to make these kinds of cuts. The news is worse for the coming budget year as Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and California governors are each proposing to cut more than a billion dollars from their states’ school budgets in the coming fiscal year.  Those were just the states I could find easily in a quick search.  I’m sure there are more.

The conditions in the Depression and now are not a one-to-one comparison, clearly. For example, the low high school graduation rates existed before the recent economic crisis, and we’ll have to see if the starving of the public school system drives that percentage even higher.  It’s clear from talking to the kids in NOLA that most of them never caught on at school and don’t see any reason to strive like their parents did to make a place for themselves in conventional society. What struck me, though, was the high unemployment rate and the even higher number of children in poverty.

When a group of young people rejects the culture’s expectations for them, the public thinks one of three things, it seems, and those are remarkably consistent across time. Some blame the culture for failing to engage young people either emotionally or economically, by offering them good educations and the kinds of jobs that can support them. Others are swept up in the romance of the vagabond, labeling the kids as rugged individualists, which in itself can be framed as a challenge to the monotony of every day life that wage-earner’s feel. And there are a significant number who just see these kids as bums: lazy, smelly, drunken bums. I heard all of these attitudes about Gutter Punks when I talked to people in bars and in homes in New Orleans.  What sets this generation apart from their ancestors is the attitude that that middle class life is over and that they couldn’t get it for themselves if they tried.