At the height of the Great Depression, 250,000 teenage hoboes were roaming America. Some left home because they felt they were a burden to their families; some fled homes shattered by the shame of unemployment and poverty. Some left because it seemed a great adventure. With the blessing of parents or as runaways, they hit the road and went in search of a better life.
A boy's or girl's decision to leave home was intensely personal, often spurred by naïveté and hope. Many held grand visions of finding work and sending money home. Like their parents, many sought jobs that simply did not exist.
Public perceptions of the road kids differed. There were people who saw the American pioneer spirit embodied in the young wanderers. There were others who feared them as the vanguard of an American rabble potentially as dangerous as the young Fascists then on the march in Germany and Italy.
What was indisputable, and what was highlighted by a series of government inquiries that addressed the “Youth Problem, ” was that crumbling family structures were not the only reason these children left home. Across the nation, school doors were locked or classrooms hours drastically reduced. Four out of ten youths of high school age were not in school. Many so-called vagrant boys had looked for work in their home town for two or three years before they hit the rails.
The young nomads of the Great Depression struggled to survive in a country “dying by inches, ” in the words of Franklin Delano