Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

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American Workers and the Struggle for Economic Opportunity

The Louisville Flood. 1937. Photograph. Photographer, Margaret Bourke-White. Courtesy of Life Magazine

The documents in this collection describe the persistent reality of economic hardship in America, focusing on the 1880s to the present. Although the foundations of economic inequality extend back to the 16th century, the forms of opportunity and inequality that exist in the twenty-first century are most closely linked with 19th-century developments including urbanization, immigration, industrialization, and social reform. During that period, government policies and private employers invested in labor systems organized around racism and sexism. This led to workplaces and job categories which separated workers on the basis of sex, race, and ethnicity. Disparities in pay and unequal access to jobs were structured into labor systems, rather than emerging as unintended consequences. For instance, after emancipation opened opportunities for formerly enslaved people to leave the segregated South and negotiate new terms of fair employment, Jim Crow segregation forced many African Americans into sharecropping, tenant farming, domestic service, and other low-wage work. As the industrial economy grew, some laborers found pathways to financial gain and economic mobility, especially through labor unions, property ownership, and education. But social reformers and labor unions also promoted working conditions based on a racial and sexual division of labor, shutting many workers out of these avenues to mobility and leading to disparate rates of pay, unequal employment opportunities and conditions, and uneven legal protections. Since these policies did not serve everyone equitably, many Americans have struggled to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families, and to establish financial security and mobility. In the twentieth century, the Great Depression spurred a period of unprecedented federal investment in social welfare and jobs programs. New federal programs addressed rural and urban poverty, supported public education, built new public housing and extended medical coverage. Throughout this period, economic inequality in the U.S. narrowed, but despite efforts to remove barriers to equal opportunities in work, schooling, housing, and fair pay, many remained disadvantaged by discriminatory federal programs and exclusionary corporate practices. The Republican revolution that began in the 1980s dramatically shifted course. It emphasized ‘trickle down economics,’ with policies that favored the rich, demonized the poor, and slashed social programs. Since that time, wages have failed to keep up with rising living costs and wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the “one percent.” 

The collected documents primarily focus on the experiences of ordinary Americans as they wrestled with the consequences of government policies and employment practices that shaped or limited their economic opportunities. Letters, photographs, political cartoons, oral testimony, speeches and government documents convey the difficulties experienced by the working poor and others who confronted a myriad of often-insurmountable challenges to pay household expenses with inadequate wages. Along with other documents in SHEC, these materials also provide glimpses into the efforts of activists and common people to use both official avenues and collective struggle to expand economic equality and to enact changes that would bring the “American Dream” into closer reach.

The collection is designed to encourage students to consider these essential questions:

What conditions contribute to the economic hardship experienced by Americans, past and present?

How are economic opportunities shaped by class, race, and gender?

What role does the government play in ameliorating or worsening poverty? In creating economic opportunities?

What solutions have ordinary Americans and elected officials proposed to lessen economic hardship and poverty?

What does it mean to "make it" in America?

In This Collection