During the Progressive era, the states were "laboratories for democracy," where state governments experimented with a wide range of reforms to eliminate governmental corruption, abolish unsafe working conditions, make government more responsive to public needs, and protect working people.
The severe Depression beginning in 1893 had discouraged states from engaging in policy innovation. Government retrenchment was the watchword of many lawmakers in the 1890s. Most of the endeavors reformers undertook during these years were efforts to eliminate political bossism, corruption, and governmental waste. The Depression also encouraged the consolidation of corporations, a development that would make trusts a major issue after the turn of the century. The Spanish American War had also diverted attention from domestic matters.
During the early 20th century, many states adopted reforms that had been enacted years earlier in Massachusetts, which, along with Rhode Island, had been the first state to have a majority of its population live in cities. Many of these reforms involved protections for working people, including:
- compulsory school attendance laws, adopted in every state except Mississippi by 1916;
- laws limiting work hours for women and children in 32 states, and minimum wages for women workers in 11 states;
- workmen's compensation, which provided compensation for workers injured on the job in 32 states.
Other laws established an eight-hour workday for state employees; authorized credit unions; created public utility commission; established state employee pensions; and instituted a host of health and safety regulations. Several states also passed laws prohibiting children from working at night.
To make the electoral process more democratic, all but three states adopted direct primaries by 1916, which allowed voters to choose among several candidates for a party's nomination. To allow voters to express their dissatisfaction with elected officials, Progressives proposed the recall, which allowed voters to vote to remove them before the end of their term in office. To give voters a greater voice in law making, Progressives proposed the initiative and the referendum. The initiative allowed voters to propose a bill and legislation, and the referendum permitted them to vote directly on an issue. Oregon, South Dakota, and Utah were the first states to adopt the initiative and referendum.
Beginning in the 1880s, Britain, France, Germany, and Scandinavia adopted a series of social welfare programs--unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, and industrial accident and health insurance. During the Progressive era, many reformers borrowed these ideas and adapted them to meet American circumstances.
Perhaps the most dramatic American innovation was "widow's pensions." Adopted by most states, these programs provided widows with a monthly payment that allowed them to keep their children at home, rather than putting them in orphanages or up for adoption.
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