Remembering Where We Came From: A Brief History of American Progress

Guest Blog by Empower Missouri Member Fred Tilinski

Troublesome people keep trying to find meaning in things President Trump says. But when was America great? Was it when business ruled the country and profits came first? If so, that was the age Mark Twain named Gilded. Not only was the US economy growing at a fantastic pace in the last quarter of the 19th century, but there were no impediments, no regulation to trouble venture capitalists.

Between 1880 and 1890, the average annual wage per industrial worker (including men, women and children) rose 48%.

High wages beckoned and job hungry immigrants found an immediate place at the table. New replacements were always needed. Factory work was dangerous. By 1900 25-35,000 deaths and 1 million injuries per year occurred on industrial jobs. Many deaths occurred on railroad jobs. Fires, machinery accidents, train wrecks and other misfortunes were common. No federal regulation of safety and no enforcement of state or local safety regulations existed. Insurance and pensions were rare, there was no such thing as social security or health insurance and courts were not sympathetic to worker claims. To support themselves and their families, thousands of men, women and children worked a standard sixty hour, six day week in unsafe factories to meet the American appetite for cheap, mass-produced goods. The concept of paid vacations and holidays, sick leave, and personal time off was generations away. By 1890 18% of the labor force consisted of children between the ages of ten and fifteen.

Large corporations and “trusts,” representing materialism and greed, were controlling more and more of the country’s finances, By the beginning of the 20th century, gross domestic product and industrial production in the United States led the world.

Robber barons and their descendants controlled billions, in 1900 almost 15% total of national assets were controlled by .03 percent of the 12 million American citizens.

Following the 1930’s Depression, with regulation and high taxes on the super wealthy, the share of national wealth between the haves and the have less class continued shrinking until the late 1970s. Then, another president promised: “to get government off our backs (the backs of the rich?) And we’ll have jobs, –wealth will trickle down”.

Twenty five years later those in the poorest 20 percent income group have actually received a whopping six percent actual income increase from that trickle. But it was the top one percent who would strike a gusher, and realize a 266% increase. America was great again– for them.

Today one single individual controls as much wealth as nine hundred. The share of total household wealth they own has risen from 7% in the late 1970s to 22%. They represent just 160,000 families.
The middle class is shrinking. The share of total US wealth owned by the bottom 90% of families fell from 36% in the mid-1980s, to 23% in 2012. Only for one in a thousand has an average increase flowed steadily upward.

In the Gilded age when America was great the government was pro-business. Congress, the presidents, and the Courts looked favorably on growth, and left leadership to the captains of industry. Lacking leadership on the political level, corruption spread like contagion through the city, state, and national governments. Forgotten presidents and greedy legislators dominated the political scene. True leadership resided among those most wealthy in the Gilded Age.

Greatness for the elite and squalor for the multitudes did not fit the beliefs of most religious denominations. Some faith groups established parochial schools, colleges, hospitals and charities. For religious people many of the problems faced by society during the Gilded Age cried out for reform. A Progressive era was coming.

Secular reformers also believed that the problems of poverty, poor health, violence, greed, racism, and class warfare could best be addressed by providing good education, a safer environment, an efficient workplace and honest government. These progressives believed that government could be a tool for change. They exposed unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry, generating public support for federal inspection of meatpacking plants. The Department of Agriculture disclosed the dangers of chemical additives in canned foods. A muckraking journalist uncovered misleading and fraudulent claims in non-prescription drugs.

Unions crusaded for an 8-hour working day and the abolition of child labor; middle class reformers demanded civil service reform, prohibition, and women’s suffrage. Local governments created schools for children instead of factory jobs, and built public schools chiefly at the elementary level. Public high schools began to emerge.

In 1891 a young member of the New York legislature spoke out against the excesses of “the wealthy criminal class” on his way to becoming a trust busting president.

It is not yet clear how a new administration dedicated to “a government of the rich, for the rich and by the rich” will best serve their 160,000 favorite families, or how soon the consequences soak in on enough of us lesser folk to understand how our meager percentage of national wealth will only slip further away.

That realization and coming reaction is exactly what will make America great again. It will create a new and successful progressive movement that rebuilds the middle class and leaves the rich still comfortable, but well and fairly taxed. And wouldn’t it be nice if the improved schools springing from that movement helped new generations absorb history and master the math that helps us all understand and seek the values of caring and compassion? That truly will keep America great .

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