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Progressives were a curious lot—they included young female settlement house workers, corporate reformers, children”s advocates, as well as southern segregationists and disenfranchisers. Progressivism might even be a misnomer; after all, what was necessarily “progressive” about the electric chair or segregation? Yet, segregation was viewed as modern, progressive, and a model of public safety and efficiency by some reformers North and South. The main elements of the movement, if we can call it that, can be found in the various reform efforts around child labor, anti-trust, worker safety and labor unions, and women”s suffrage.
Reformers responded in part to the rapid advancement of new technology, the emergence out of the new industrial economy of urban and corporate dominance, the availability of natural resources as a result of western expansion, the rise of a labor class, and, finally, the loss of middle-class power between the 1880s and 1910s. Reforming efforts took place in all political, economic, and social arenas and each of these efforts repeatedly questioned the role of the federal government in addressing the issues and problems of a new economic order. Many historians argue that the rising, popular expectations of federal authority during this era foreshadowed the large and activist role government would assume during the Great Depression and after World War II.
The typical progressive reformer was young, college-educated, and middle-class. Reformers tended to value scientific studies and the recommendations of professional “experts” whether they were promoting efficiencies in society or fighting corruption in politics. Political reformism offered some of the earliest signals for a progressive movement generally and for sustained reform through the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Progressive reformers began to shed Victorian ideas about society, including some of the trappings of Social Darwinism. They understood society as an organic whole, a system with interrelated parts, rather than as a set of individuals and one-to-one relationships. Some of these ideas were fueled by the new field of sociology and the professionalization of medicine, law, psychology, anthropology, and the social sciences. Prohibition might serve as the preeminent progressive reform. Temperance reformers of an earlier generation tried to reform the individual drunk, curing him of his immorality through appeals to religion and manhood. Social Darwinists, such as Henry Graham Sumner, considered the gutter a fitting place for drunks: only the reformers saw the drunk as part of a larger system and began to target the saloons and the businesses and laws that helped lead him astray. At the same time, they saw alcoholism as a disease, something beyond the individual”s moral control and able to be corrected with sustained professional help. Moreover, drinking and drunkenness was far more an individual act or responsibility, for it had wide social repercussions. It swept the family aside; it led to prostitution and venereal diseases; it slowed production in business; it choked the economy. Progressives extrapolated from one malady to another, maintaining that the extensive failings of society were interrelated. In this respect, they differed greatly from Populists, whose main concern was to solve the dispiriting problems on the American farm of the early 1890s. Progressives took on a vast array of challenges and were not content to rest until the flaws in American society were addressed in their entirety.
Other Progressives sought to combat industrialism” deleterious impact at a more grassroots level. Jane Addams”s Hull House is the most well known of the settlement houses that aimed to help the working class, primarily the new immigrants, adjust to industrial conditions. Armed with research and energy, female reformers worked for better urban housing, increased municipal responsibility for sanitation, an end to child labor, and the rights of workers. Meanwhile, workers continued to mobilize in support of their own interests as emphasized by David Montgomery in The Fall of the House of Labor. While the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, helped defend male workers, ensure fair pay, and improve workplace safety through striking and collective bargaining, female reformers hoped to cross class lines by forming women”s unions through organizations like the Women”s Trade Union League. Other reformers focused on continuing work begun before the Civil War. Women and moral crusaders drew support from religious fronts by attacking “urban ills” like prostitution and alcohol abuse. Reviving the temperance movement, reformers saw immigrants, who tended to congregate at taverns and saloons, as the purveyors of these vices. Such moralism-and, to a large degree, nativism-would eventually lead to prohibition.
Journalists known as “muckrakers” took on a more aggressive approach, using newspapers and other publications to highlight rising corporate abuses and poor working and housing conditions. Upton Sinclair”s expose novel The Jungle, exposed the life of the immigrant, the unsafe conditions of his or her workplace and the heartlessness of corporations in the city of Chicago. While Sinclair meant the novel to inspire the socialist movement in the United States, The Jungle”s greatest impact was more circumscribed. It inspired progressive reformers to pass the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which ensures food safety even today-a tame and limited solution to what Sinclair saw as egregious and systematic evils in the American economic system, akin in his mind to slavery. Most muckrakers managed only to expose corporate abuses, but eventually tragic accidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City”s garment district finally motivated politicians to pass sweeping reform measures regarding workplace safety and child labor. Such laws imposed strict government regulation and oversight of corporate practices. A federal law prohibiting child labor passed Congress in 1916.
The Progressives actually viewed the corporation as a model of efficiency, heralding its use of experts and scale of operations, yet corporations” actions required oversight or the results be disastrous for the American consumer and worker. They hoped to force corporate power to evolve responsibly by creating efficient bureaucratic systems to organize and control corporate abuses. These regulatory changes, they hoped, would eventually lead to policies that would ensure a more responsible state. While they tended to oppose corporate abuse in the industrial era, Progressives embraced the technological innovation and capitalism that accompanied industrialization. While guarding against its abuses, Progressives very much embraced technology and its values. Engineers like Frederick Taylor introduced concepts of efficiency and rationality into business organization in 1911, encouraging companies to establish structured bureaucracies of managers and planners who would run the factories like finely tuned machines.
While encouraging efficient systems to run large companies, Progressives also limited their growth through antitrust laws, successfully passing the Sherman Anti-trust Act in 1890, to try and regulate how monopolies gained and maintained power, especially those that did so through abusive practices like trusts and holding companies. Progressives argued that such actions restricted, limited, and oftentimes stifled the competition essential for a democratic, capitalistic system. Opponents feared that such government regulation would stall innovation by imposing boundaries on laissez-faire economic activity.
The expansion into the western territories opened vast new areas of natural resources in areas with sparse populations. Reformers organizations like the Sierra Club, led by John Muir, advocated for the preservation of particularly beautiful land through the establishment of national forests and parks. Other environmental reformers agreed that some lands should be preserved, but they applied progressive values more through a policy of conservation. Conservationists believed that natural resource development should be managed in such a way as to benefit as many people as possible. Rather than opposing the use of natural resources, conservationists encouraged their efficient use and fought against irresponsible wastefulness. One of the best examples of this idea was the endorsement of hydroelectric power, which Progressives viewed as a clean and efficient use of irrigation water to produce much needed energy for industrial and domestic use. Both preservationists and conservations found a fervent supporter in President Theodore Roosevelt.
World War I
World War I tested many of the Progressives” theories on efficiency, conservation, and unity by placing greater demands on the American political economy. The need for higher levels of production allowed workers and their unions to leverage their growing bargaining power. Social reformers took advantage of wartime imperatives as well, as Prohibitionists used the necessities of war to shut down distilleries to conserve grain.
More than twenty thousand women also served in the armed forces during World War I, often as nurses. Women were at least as influential, however, on the home front activity in their exercise of political power. The prominent efforts of educated women reformers like Jane Addams spilled over into political action much as it had before the Civil War at the 1848 Seneca Falls meeting, when female activists first called for women”s suffrage. The movement had garnered some success since the convention on a state-by -state level, especially in the sparsely populated West, where states often needed to count women to achieve statehood and maintain adequate representation. By the twentieth century, women had altered their argument for the vote by emphasizing their differences from, rather than their equality to, men. Unlike men, female reformers argued that their natural proclivities for nurturing would encourage them to take their civic obligations seriously, and furthermore, as women, they were more equipped to address the social ills of industrial society. Embracing the patriotic fervor of the war, and applying the aggressive political pressure of the social reformers, the National Women”s Party finally garnered President Wilson”s support for women”s suffrage. In 1919, Congress passed the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote.
The many aspects of the Progressive Era have been fruitful fodder for historical study, but the time period remains one of the most difficult to teach and understand. Over the last fifty years, historians Richard Hofstadter (1955), Robert Wiebe (1967), and Alan Dawley (1991) have each attempted to synthesize this diverse and complex time period. All agree that the Progressive Era was marked by significant reforms aimed at helping the country adjust to a rapidly changing society; where they disagree is on the motivations behind these reforms. While Hofstadter and Wiebe emphasize the social controls of one class over the other, Dawley provides a more complex version of a societal effort to readjust and create new systems. To Hofstader, Progressivism embraced a trend of reform advocated by a middle-class elite experiencing a loss of power-what he terms “status-anxiety”-while Wiebe saw the Progressives as a new urban elite who applied new forms of organization, order, and structure appropriate to urban life. Dawley regards the period as the dawn of an infant welfare state that eventually evolved into the “doctrine of security” articulated in the New Deal of the 1930s. These three conceptions highlight the difficulty of defining the Progressive Movement. The Progressives themselves are likewise not an easily identifiable group, either by background or motivation. What is clear is that their ideals and actions established a stance toward public life that would echo for decades to come.
Works Cited and Further Reading
Dawley, Alan. Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1991.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955.
Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Wiebe, Robert H. The Search for Order, 1877-1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967.