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].”