This dissertation examines the cultural politics and social conflicts that have and continue to shape the relations and practices of youth work. Based on ethnographic participant-observation and interviews in a non-profit alternative school and a for-profit day treatment program, I describe how youth workers in Alston, North Carolina, negotiate relationships with young people, their co-workers, and the uneven social contexts of their work through contested and culturally informed understandings of what should be done about troubled or at-risk youth. Using discourse analyses of public hearing transcripts, policy statements, media accounts, and youth work literature, and an examination of the cultural history of social-work, this research situates the local contentious practice of youth workers in Alston within ongoing social struggles in the United States and capitalism at-large. These struggles and conflicts involve the role of the state in relation to the market economy, the social distribution of resources, and the conduct of social welfare and control. I examine these struggles as they emerged through and shaped the character of youth work in both the 19th century child saving movement and in the neoliberal privatization and withdrawal of the state at the close of the 20th century. Historical and ethnographic analyses illustrate how these conflicts not only concern the substance of youth work, but also social divisions and inequalities including the gendered implications of social labor, the moral valuation of poverty, crime, and violence, and the relationship of these to racial, ethnic, and class difference. Drawing on social practice theory and the idea that the language and practices workers express are shaped by their history-in-person, this dissertation describes how youth workers employed varying rhetorical narratives of professionalism and what I call organic expertise to define youth and the moral conduct of youth work. Finally, I consider how the cultural resources workers bring to practice converge with the conditions of their labor to shape what they actually do with young people.