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Progressivism Misery of the Masses

Question: How did progressives redefine poverty? Why was that important? Where and why did progressive solutions for the problems of poverty fall short?

If there was one period of American history that could be labelled the most influential or constructive to the reality of our society today, perhaps it would be the Progressive movement. A reason may be progressives were not against the American system, they just wanted to fix it. They believed strongly in the good of humanity, fairness, and regulation.

Truly conservatives at heart, they wanted to revert back to the days of equality of opportunity, democracy, and social justice. Equality, fairness, opportunity all predominately applied to the poor since they were most likely the ones being taken advantage of.

In light of poverty progressives, however, had a much different view than the sin of the individual. Poverty, in their eyes, was directly related to the environment and opportunities an individual was presented with. This outlook was important because it was at the roots of all the reforms progressives lobbied for. However idealistic and good-hearted the efforts of progressives were to eliminate poverty, they were accompanied by mis-education and poor treatments.

The Progressive views of poverty are fairly simple: poverty is the product of failures of the government and the environment it creates. Driven by social justice, people like Jacob Riis showed the grim reality of poverty to the rest of the world. In this particular case, he used photographs to powerfully illustrate the effects of abuses of an industrial society.

Riis and others like Jane Addams, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris all took up the cause for the needy and created sympathy for the less fortunate. The majority of progressives steered away from the issue of self sin that brought about some of the evils of society they were fighting against alcoholism, corruption, prostitution, and drug abuse. This again fuses the idea that the life of the poor was a direct product of the environment in which they lived.

Because of the secular way progressives looked at the poor, they used unorthodox and modern methods rather than the evangelical means of the past great awakenings. The progress of social service moved from the settlement house movement to the social worker which was committed full time to the people.

Social workers studied problems, symptoms, causes, and individual needs. Much of the time the conclusions made by my social workers and philanthropists placed the blame on the government, the greed of big industries and their working conditions, and institutions like the saloon. This leads to the other aspect of progressive efforts: regulation.

The influences of regulation were not concentrated with poor but made nationwide. New organizations and laws such as the Department of Commerce, the Anti-Saloon League, the Elkins Act, and the Mann Act benefited not only the poor but also affected the rest of America. These ideas dealt with the records of companies, the dangers of alcohol, the controversial railroad rebates, and the state by state transportation of prostitutes.

By trying to create a society that doesn’t breed poverty and a new division of social workers, concerned individuals (mostly progressives) worked to cure the ailments of pre-World War I America.

In reaching out and helping the less fortunate, progressives and reformists, as expected, were not perfect. Efforts were concentrated in the large urban cities where the majority of impoverished people resided. A good portion of the country, however, was rural and also poor. These people were left to fight their problems alone or with people of the same circumstances. An example of the co-dependency of the community for the poor rural was the granges as expressed in the last chapter. The modest budgets of the middle class were not adequate to fund large scale social benefits.

Most of the reformists and progressives were of the middle class and also women. Government backing would have increased of the success of progressives to reform the cities. And lastly, progressives just were not aware of the deep-rooted problems people had. Psychology was just starting to grow into a main branch of science. The common person did not know of the mental illnesses and restricted personalities of those who were commonly the poorest. I would assume that progressives did all they could with what they were given.

The progressive view of poverty, and the actions they took, however minimal due to timing, were truly a step forward for American civil service. The main idea was that people were sick of living with such terrible conditions and the heart they found inside themselves told them to reach out to others. It may be one of the most good-hearted times in American history. In looking at society today the remains of the progressive era are all around: psychologists, rehabilitation centers, 12 steps to recovery programs, and the welfare state are all programs whose origins come from the progressive era.

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