Last week, one of the nation’s oldest and most famous settlement houses, Hull House in Chicago, announced that it is closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy.
Chicagoans are shocked that a 123-year-old institution providing crucial human services will disappear. For those around the country who work at settlement houses—these days, often called community or neighborhood centers—it feels as if there has been a death in the family. Hull House’s co-founder Jane Addams, who later became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, is widely thought of as the mother of the early American settlement house movement. Legions of social workers consider Hull House the birthplace of their profession.
The reason Hull House is disappearing is straightforward: it was overly reliant on government funding in a time of public-sector cutbacks for social services, and particularly for child welfare. At one point, the agency was receiving 85 percent of its revenues from various levels of government. When the federal government, the State of Illinois, Cook County and the City of Chicago began cutting support a decade ago, the agency’s board and staff worked hard to raise more private dollars, but the increased gifts were never enough. Between 2001 and 2011, Hull House’s total revenues dropped from $40 million to $23 million.Other settlement houses struggled with the same problem but managed not to close their doors.
Hull House today is, or was, an example of the settlement house as government provider. Sadly, because government funding will always ebb and flow, this model has serious limitations. But Hull House in its first decades offered a different kind of model: that of a settlement house as an engine for social justice activism. Notably, at a time before the charitable tax deduction, the house was funded entirely by private gifts, some small, and some from wealthy donors who were committed to, or at least tolerant of, the left-leaning, and even radical aspects of its work. And that model remains a potentially invaluable legacy in this economically polarized age.
Jane Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House in 1889. In their day, as in our own, the majority of the nation was strapped financially, while a much smaller number lived comfortably upper-middle-class lives and a relative few were gathering the bulk of the nation’s wealth into their own hands. A settlement house—the world’s first, Toynbee Hall, was in East London—was meant to be a place where these worlds mingled.
The “settlers” were the prosperous men and women who worked or volunteered in the city and lived together in a house in a run-down, working class neighborhood. They came out of a vague desire “to do something” about the great divide between “the rich and poor,” as it was called. Some stayed a year or two, others five or ten years, others a lifetime.People also came as volunteers to help out with the house’s many activities in art, drama, music, recreation, education and charity. While they often arrived with a sense of moral superiority, if they stayed long enough and their minds were open, their class condescension evaporated and was replaced by democratic beliefs: outrage at the unjust conditions working people strove to overcome and eagerness to be their political allies in those struggles. To Addams this shift in understanding was essential. Citizens in a democracy, she wrote, “cannot cooperate so long as one group sets itself up as superior [to another].”
The great insight of the settlement movement was the power of social ties to realign the energies of prosperous people away from their class self-interests and towards efforts to support the reforms working people sought, which in Addams’s times included a livable wage and the eight-hour workday.Underlying that insight was the recognition that materially comfortable people often held dangerous misconceptions about working class people as undisciplined and without ambition and that working people held prejudices of their own about the selfishness and greed of the wealthier classes.
Addams urged her audiences and her readers to “mix on the thronged and common road, where all [can]…at least see the size of one another’s burdens.” She often pointed out that “most of the misunderstandings of life are due to partial intelligence, because our experiences have been so unlike that we cannot comprehend each other.” To those possessing some economic security, she had an important message: “We are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life.”
Today, we have all kinds of nonprofits, including non-residential settlement houses, foundations, religious organizations, and research, government and university programs focused on solving (or sometimes studying) particular social injustices. To inform us of these efforts we can turn to a rich array of magazines, newspapers, websites, books, TV and radio shows, and documentaries. Thus we have a situation in which specialists are doing the work while the rest of us read and listen to words upon words about what they are doing. But learning about these entirely worthwhile efforts does not transform us because we encounter them only through our minds. Our bodies stay in our chairs.We make no human connections, except at an imaginary remove.
Addams was so successful in raising private dollars to fund all of Hull House's work because of her skill in connecting donors to the life of Hull House. Donors were often there as guests at dinner, as volunteers, as attendees at lectures, concerts, and plays (mostly involving people from the neighborhood). Not all nonprofits can offer their donors such opportunities for connection, and others could but do not encourage it.
Is the original settlement house method—having every day citizens of one socio-economic class live among those of another—a legacy that we should bring back to life? We may or may not need to such places, though I admit I would like to see the model tried again. But we could benefit from finding new ways, in Addams’s words, to come together “on the common road.”What those new ways are must be discovered by those willing to experiment and change their minds. Addams did not set out in 1889 to become a political ally of working people. It was the unexpected result of the new life she chose. She later said, “A settlement [is] an institution attempting to learn from life itself.” By creating and leading such an open-minded, flexible organization, she helped herself and hundreds of other prosperous people form cross-class political alliances to work for social justice. But it all started with social ties. As Jane Addams pointed out more than one hundred years ago, citizens cannot cooperate so long as one group thinks itself superior to another.