Junior (College 3rd year) ・History ・MLA ・6 Sources

Many nations and economies around the globe are extremely concerned about inequality. In both the developed and developing worlds, reformists are working to close the economic, social, and cultural gap between the wealthy and the poor. The 20th century, and more particularly the early decades, were the center of the paper because of the global gap or division between the rich and the poor starting to close. While the lower classes were being assisted to catch up and close the gap, the wealthy in this era kept their wealth and did not become even wealthier. This decline in the inequality between the rich and the poor in the early 20th century was largely contributed by growth in productivity that was brought about by major technological advancements that were done in the late 19th century.

The paper also focuses on how there were widespread political reforms and social activism across the world and specifically in the United States. The reforms were aiming at eliminating problems that had increased due to corruption in government, immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. Few individuals had become rich from the industrialization, and this led to rising of social classes with social hierarchy forming. The natives were at the top of the hierarchy and the poor at the bottom who were mainly the African Americans. The paper also talks about the social reformers and their efforts to help improve the living conditions of the poor population and reduce the division. They made efforts such as building playgrounds and parks while others cleaned up the municipal streets for the poor population.

Progressive Era


In the development of economies and countries, inequality in the different populations has been a central concern for many. People are aiming at reducing the gaps between the rich and poor both in the developed and developing world. There have been differences in the life-chances, opportunities, and income especially in the recent years that have created expressions of inequality across the world (Atkinson, p.13). These differences in equality have had adverse effects on sustainability of development in environmental and human terms. There is need to study the social factors and the historical paths that inequalities have taken around the globe to have a more understanding of the transformation of stratification and the impacts it has had on economic structures. This paper focuses on the inequality and division between the rich and the poor in the early 20th century.

The Division between Rich and Poor at the Start of the Twentieth Century

According to Teulings & Van (2003, p.16-18), there was a narrowing of the gap or division between the rich and the have-nots for much of the early 20th century around the world. This period saw the rich maintaining their wealth and not getting richer while the poor were helped to catch up and narrow the gap. Genevey et al. (2013, p.21) state that the reduced divisions between the poor and the rich mainly started in North America and some parts of Europe at around the outset of the 1920s. In some of the developing countries, there was an extension of the decline in inequality to around 1930s (Milanović, p.92). However, in later dates, there was a reverse in the improvement, and the inequality levels were raised again. Nearly all economies around the world experienced the rise in inequality and Milanović (2012, p.97) states that even countries whose inequality were previously less such as Sweden, Germany, and Denmark were affected.

Growth in productivity largely contributed the decline in the inequality between the rich and the poor in the early 20th century. The acceleration of productivity was due to significant advancements in technology that was done in the late 19th century (Escobar, p.70). There was spread of the small industrial revolution in the start of the century from the United States to other countries. Countries such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and Japan which were formerly less developed were able to improve their economies. The living standards of the poor in these countries greatly benefited from the revolution as they improved and helped reduce the gap between the poor and the rich.

Ideas of Reform

The ideas for understanding and measurement of inequalities around the world started in the past. In the start of the twentieth century, countries were developing their economies, and there was need to compare their speed of development to other countries. Populations were comparing their living standards, and hence there was need to improve the standards of the poor to fill the gap with the rich population (Escobar, p.22). However, there were countries which were being colonized at the time, and the European population was at a higher level than the people being colonized. According to Milanovic (2012, p.126-127), the whites and the blacks at the time had a barrier of incomparability since they had different needs and social aspirations.

In the 20th century, there was widespread political reforms and social activism across the world and specifically in the United States. The reforms were aiming at eliminating problems that had increased due to corruption in government, immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. According to Escobar (2012, p.41), the main reformers in this period were the socialist and the evangelical Christians. There was fighting to have social justice especially in the rural areas around America by the populists. On the other hand, there was focus to better the living and work conditions for the poor populations working in the urban areas where the reformers mainly focused on improving. However, there existed some reformers who believed that the white population still maintained their superiority while others were against this and they fought to have racial equality. Other reformers focused on fighting inequality against the women.

The early 20th century can be described as the progressive era where social movements were fighting to have the social needs satisfied. These movements transformed with time and became reform movements that were famous for their political actions at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. Some individuals had become extremely wealthy due to the industrialization which had enabled them to establish successful businesses all across the country. The conducive business environment helped them expand their existing business and make more profits. This growth in a few individuals led to rising of social classes with a social hierarchy forming. The natives in the US formed the top group and the have-nots at the bottom were mainly the African Americans. The reformers were from a middle-class group, and they possessed a strong sense of social duty to the poor (Escobar, p.47).

Did these groups hope to affect change from a moral concern?

The rise of social hierarchy in the society helped highlight issues such as socioeconomic, health, and food that was present in the urban areas and affected the poor people. These issues gave rise to a new framework where inequalities could easily be expressed, and new demands were created for equality. According to Teulings & Van (2003, p.88), there was development of activism as the Third world felt exploited and scorned by the developed world. There existed various economic theories and political struggles that expressed inequality. The progressives who were trying to decline the gap between the rich and the poor emerged from the middle class, and they were comprised of a working class such as justices of the courts, historians, philosophers, politicians, and social critics. They hoped to change the liberal economic and social policies that were in existence since the civil war. They hoped to effect change from a moral concern as they believed that they could be forces of positive social change.

Or, were the goals of Progressivism an attempt to upgrade lower class revolutionary sentiments?

There were growing inequalities regarding wealth that was brought by the industrialization. These inequalities in the views of the reformers were some of the social ills, and they had to come up with solutions to the variety of problems that had come up. Teulings & Van (2003, p.102) states that some of the reformers made attempts to improve the lives of the lower class such as some built playgrounds and parks while others cleaned up the local streets for the poor population. They organized to improve the living conditions of the urban poor by stopping government corruption and legislating social justice.

In conclusion, the 20th century saw an unparalleled improvement in the living standards. The poor population was also improved to help reduce the gap between the rich. The 19th century had exposed some large population around the world into living below the standards due to poverty. The living standards of people residing in the poor economies around the world improved by some margin throughout the century while those living in the rich economies saw their standards growing even faster. There was a significant distribution of income in the early start of the century, but at the end, the margin was becoming wider as the world was seen to increase inequality. The developing countries need to improve their economic institutions to enable a stable economic environment that will attract both domestic and foreign investments.

Works Cited

Atkinson, A.B. (2015), Inequality: What can be done?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Genevey, R., Pachauri, R. K., Tubiana, L., Jozan, R., Voituriez, T., Sundar, S. (2013). Reducing inequalities: A sustainable development challenge. Delhi: TERI.

Escobar, A. (2012). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Teulings, C. N., & Van, R. T. (2003). Education, growth and income inequality. London: Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Milanović, B. (2012). The haves and the have-nots: A brief and idiosyncratic history of global inequality. New York: Basic Books.

Milanovic, B. (May 01, 2012). Global Inequality: From Class to Location, from Proletarians to Migrants. Global Policy, 3, 2, 125-134.

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