Explain how the relationship between the government and the citizenry changed as reform became increasingly popular at the state and eventually at the federal level from the 1880s to the 1920s.

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During the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, the US population grew as immigration increased greatly, at least until barriers were established in 1920. At the same time, the population of the country became increasingly urban. During this period, the Progressive movement grew, as it became more and more...

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During the period from the 1880s to the 1920s, the US population grew as immigration increased greatly, at least until barriers were established in 1920. At the same time, the population of the country became increasingly urban. During this period, the Progressive movement grew, as it became more and more apparent that the federal government needed to become involved in the lives of ordinary people. Progressives called for reforms such as a federal minimum wage, an end to child labor, and a forty-hour work week.

In this period, the role of government was defined as follows: the states and private charity took care of the social welfare of local citizens (usually not very well), while the federal government concerned itself primarily with defense. However, some social welfare legislation passed in this period. For example, in 1906, as a response to Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle, the federal government established the Pure Food and Drug Act, authorizing food and drug inspections across the country. In 1907, the US Employment Service was established to help people across the nation find jobs and businesses to find workers. But through most of this period, social welfare advances occurred at the state level: for example, in 1914, Arizona established the first old age pensions, a precursor to Social Security.

The main point to understand about the period from the 1880s to 1933 is that—while there was a great deal of ferment and pressure on the federal government to enact programs that would help all Americans—not much was actually done during this era, as the ideology of self-help and local charity was still firmly in place. It was not until the Great Depression and the election of FDR, which ushered in the New Deal, that the government took on responsibility for social programs that benefitted all Americans. The programs that FDR implemented, such as Social Security, survived because it was a period of crisis and local governments realized that the federal government could run social programs much more efficiently than current piecemeal efforts—and fund more generously at a time of dire need.

Today, as I write, this ideological issue is again playing out. When President Trump wants states to handle coronavirus on their own, he is articulating a conservative desire to go back to a pre–New Deal world in which the federal government has almost no role in providing for the social welfare. The state governors who are pleading with him in a crisis to coordinate the pandemic effort are arguing from a New Deal stance that the federal government is better equipped to handle a nationwide crisis. That we still live in a New Deal world is demonstrated by the passage of trillion-plus dollar federal legislation to provide unemployment relief across the board to all fifty states. This would have been very unlikely to happen prior to 1933.

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