The Progressive Era and the New Deal would lead to a changed, expanded role of Government in the United States. During the Progressive Era, support for worker’s rights movements and unions would lead to limiting child labor and the number of hours a worker was allowed to have to work, for example. Upton Sinclair’s landmark work “ The Jungle” would lead to stricter food regulations. In the wake of disasters such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, stronger fire regulations were introduced. The gradual progress of the Progressive era eventually gave way to the need for wide-sweeping and swift changes in the economic wake of Black Friday and the Great Depression during the New Deal. Major programs introduced then, like Social Security and Medicare, would change American life forever. Other programs, like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA, would not only provide much-needed employment, but would also improve the infrastructure and public works in the United States for a long time to come.
In taking these steps, the role of the government was greatly expanded. During the progressive era, as noted, legislation was passed on fire codes, worker’s rights, and food content. Obviously, a larger government was thus required to ensure that these new laws were followed. The gains won by the progressives made life significantly safer for the average American; workdays were cut, child labor was limited, people were no longer dying in scores in public fires (the Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago in 1903, for example, killed at least 605 people, and the result was the widespread implementation of the panic bar; the Cocoanut Grove Fire in Boston in 1942, albeit well after the heyday of the Progressive Movement, also resulted in reforms in fire codes and other health and safety measures.
During World War I, a precedent was set for cooperation between the government and labor. The War Industries Board was established, which coordinated wartime production, compiled economic data, and managed resources and raw materials, as well as looked for ways to improve efficiency in the production, purchasing, and distribution of war supplies. The National War Labor Board sought the cooperation of workers, who agreed not to strike or disrupt wartime production in exchange for 8-hour workdays, equal pay for women, and overtime pay.
President Herbert Hoover would be placed in the position of bridging the gap between the Progressive Era and FDR’s New Deal. He utilized a combination of public and private forces to counter the downturn. Though he involved himself more in combating the poor economic situation more than any other President before him had, they still were insufficient to counter the downturn. He invested in public works, made business loans available, and organized charities. On the other hand, he also supported measures that decreased chances for recovery, including increasing tariffs and raising taxes to balance the budget. It was ironic that Hoover was the man put in charge, and generally blamed, for the state of the economy and the suffering of the people; after World War I, he had been in charge of food relief in Belgium, and was widely praised for his humanitarian work. Yet by the time he left the White House following the defeat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, he was criticized for his ineffectiveness, and indeed, even blamed for the Great Depression. Hoover had given a lot of effort, but this effort could not save his public image, particularly when juxtaposed against FDR, who adopted pragmatic approaches to recovery..
After the Great Depression set in in the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States on a radical platform that involved reforming the American system entirely. Upon election, he launched the New Deal, which would greatly expand the role of the federal government in people’s everyday lives. The programs executed fell into three broad categories, relief, recovery, and reform. Relief was provided through payments, such as social security, and also through job programs such as the PWA, CCC, and WPA. These programs also added the benefit to society that they improved public works, infrastructure, etc. For recovery, they focused on industry, corporations, and agriculture. Many vital pieces of legislation was also passed, including NIRA, the AAA, and the TVA, which served the dual purpose of regulating the navigation on the Tennessee River and also providing low-cost electricity throughout the rural South. The most sweeping reforms came about with the creation of Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Wagner Act, and the Securities and Exchange Act (although making Joseph P. Kennedy, one of the most infamous money launderers in the country, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, was perhaps as dubious a choice as later making a prominent Irish-American ambassador to the United Kingdom only a few short years later).
While the New Deal did much good and led to structures that we value today as integral parts of American society, such as Social Security and Medicare, the Depression did not fully lift until the outbreak of World War II. One reason for this in particular is something often noted by grandchildren of “ Depression-era” grandparents: that their grandparents, long after the immediate economic danger was at bay, were reluctant to spend money, and did not recirculate newly gained wealth into the economy, despite the fact that people doing so on a large scale would have led to improvement. Interestingly, this has held less true in the current economic downturn, but spending is still down. People do not wish to spend after having experienced one such event of the carpet being ripped out from under them, knowing it could happen again just as easily and that they ought to be prepared.
The roots of greater government involvement in everyday life certainly began in the Progressive Era, and much lasting good was done there. It would be hard to imagine programs founded even as late as OSHA and the EPA, which play such a huge role in the health of our nation today, without the groundwork laid by the Progressives. The New Deal, in turn, fully cemented the government in a role where it was, to a certain extent, accountable for the wellbeing of its people. This was revolutionary. It also ensured that the Federal Government had a precedent of intervening in tough economic situations for the welfare of its citizens. Investing into the United States economy also became standard practice, which up until that point had mostly focused on projects that would have a pay-off and a tangible benefit for the government itself (such as the Panama Canal) rather than simply be a humanitarian gesture. This changed role of government is the one that we generally practice today, and it would be difficult to imagine America without it.
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