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The fact that many in the progressive movement were from the middle class greatly influenced the goals of progressivism. Progressives wanted to improve the life experienced by members of the lower classes; at the same time most desired that the nature and pace of this improvement be dictated by them and not the workers themselves. Progressives greatly feared the potential for revolution found in socialist and anarchist writings of the era; they proposed a series of gradual reforms. Progressives, as stated previously, wanted to make existing institutions work better. Factories, they felt, could be changed so that they would be concerned with the quality of life of their workers; governments could be altered so that they would act as protectors of the lower classes.

It should be noted that progressive goals and programs were not universally popular. Progressive programs for the betterment of the poor oftentimes meant that the government would have more control over their lives; many in the lower class were vehemently opposed to this. In addition, progressives wanted to crack down on urban political machines, which in many cases did much to aid the lives and conditions of the lower classes. As a result, the very people that progressive reforms were designed to help were oftentimes resentful of these reforms.

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