During the Progressive Era, lasting from 1890-1920, governments and activists began to address both the workplace and urban problems that developed as a result of the United States's rapid industrialization and population growth in the later 19th century. Through the work of social and labor activists, who were often women, as well as muckraking journalists, middle-class people became more and more aware of the harsh, economically insecure and physically dangerous conditions in which many working class Americans toiled for very low wages. Most of the leading progressives pushing for reform were college-educated, an elite group at a time when less than 50 percent of the population even graduated from high school.
The Progressive Era was notable for laying the groundwork for the idea of government, especially federal government, responsibility for protecting and improving the life of the working class and the poor. While workers remained highly vulnerable until the New Deal emerged in the 1930s, certain efforts and reforms improved the lives of working class people. These included:
Factory Safety Regulation: These laws were passed on the state rather than the federal level, but most states agreed to require factories to maintain minimum safety standards, and allow inspectors to visit factories to ensure standards were being upheld.
Other reforms included workers' compensation, requiring workers be paid if injured on the job, and restrictions on child labor.
Some states passed limits on the number of hours women had to work, but the idea of a forty-hour work week remained a dream for most workers.
Minimum housing standards, especially meant to address the horrors of tenement dwellings, were introduced into cities, as well as regular trash pick up, sewage systems and the hiring of inspectors to ensure landlords were abiding by housing laws.
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle led to federal regulations on food production and inspection of meat-packing plants. This indirectly improved the health of working class people who often had no access to gardening and relied on factory foods.
Beautification projects, especially movements to put parks and open spaces into urban areas, disproportionately benefitted the working classes, who usually could not afford to leave cities for country vacations.