Settlement houses assisted immigrants struggling to cope with meager incomes, new social customs, and unhealthy living conditions. Settlement house workers laid the foundation for government-sponsored social work as a profession by offering assistance to the poor and by gathering data to prove the need for societal reform.
Settlement houses in slum neighborhoods were established and run by young, primarily female, college-educated members of the middle class who hoped to improve the lives of immigrants and other poor city dwellers. With the rapid expansion of factory-based employment, such city dwellers suffered from devastating poverty, a situation that settlement workers hoped to remedy through education and charitable relief.
Two of the original leaders of the settlement house movement,
Hull-House founder Jane Addams (second from left) aboard the Noordam, which auto manufacturer Henry Ford chartered in 1915 to send a peace delegation to The Hague during World War I. Addams was the head of the forty-two delegate group, whose members include three settlement workers, six teachers, three writers, two poets, and a variety of other people.
The settlement house movement represented an adherence to a “social gospel” calling for a more Christian society that would minimize the increasing gap between the upper and lower classes. Concerned religious and civic leaders designated church and “Community Chest” funds to finance settlement houses staffed by trained workers as a means of granting charitable relief to the poor, many of them immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Settlement workers agreed to reside in the neighborhoods they served in order to obtain the fullest possible exposure to the plight of the urban poor, who were forced to live in overcrowded tenement housing with inadequate sanitation.
Settlement workers offered immigrants opportunities in music, dance, and cultural productions as well as classes in cooking, sewing, child care, and personal hygiene. Some settlements even established public bathing facilities. Many added day care, kindergarten, and English-language classes to their services. In addition, settlements supported clubs, lending libraries, and lecture series as well as providing space for laborers to organize. The wide variety of settlement house services reflected a pragmatic response to local needs.
Settlement workers kept detailed records of their accomplishments and of their observations of neighborhood problems in order to substantiate specific cases in which immigrants deserved more equitable treatment. As settlement leaders struggled to develop more accurate assessments of the pressures of poverty, they relied upon the data that they had gathered to support calls for reform. The most successful campaigns for urban improvement centered on subjects such as garbage removal and the creation of parks and playgrounds. Ironically, legislation requiring improvements in tenement houses tended to increase property values and at times displaced immigrant families unable to pay higher rents.
Settlement houses generally proved inadequate to deal with the escalating difficulties immigrants experienced, in part because their philanthropic status rendered them ill-equipped to address deep-seated political and economic issues. Immigrants were forced to contend with unfamiliar institutions, language barriers, isolation, low wages, and unemployment. These challenges prevented the majority of them from achieving the self-improvement that settlement founders expected. Most immigrants utilizing settlement services were women, and settlement organizers seldom recruited them to assess neighborhood needs or to participate in program planning. Although immigrant leaders viewed settlements positively and encouraged cooperation with them, newcomers relied on local politicians and contacts in religious and ethnic communities to provide key resources.
Settlement house workers soon extended their efforts beyond neighborhoods, pressing for progressive reform through legislation at city, state, and national levels. As reforms took hold, alternate employment opportunities for settlement workers increased and they continued relief efforts as researchers, union organizers, lobbyists, and administrators of charitable foundations. Others served as teachers in expanded nursing schools and social work programs.
Settlement houses were institutions that called for an American ideal of personal service and moral responsibility, and in so doing they encouraged cities to become more responsive to the needs of their immigrant populations. After World War I, the importance of settlement houses declined as government-sponsored social programs developed and efforts to build cooperative neighborhoods came under the auspices of nonprofit organizations and other sponsors. In the modern era, community centers, shelters, and organizations such as the
Carson, Mina. Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Social and intellectual history portraying the shift from charismatic leadership to scientific procedures in the settlement movement. Davis, Allen F. Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Traces the expanding influence of settlement workers, especially in Boston, Chicago, and New York. Friedman, Michael, and Brett Friedman. Settlement Houses: Improving the Social Welfare of America’s Immigrants. New York: Rosen, 2006. Reveals the broad influence of settlement house reformers. For younger readers. Koerin, Beverly. “The Settlement House Tradition: Current Trends and Future Concerns.” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 30, no. 2 (2003): 53-68. Reports on a national survey of current settlements and their services. Trolander, Judith Ann. Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1866 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Detailed assessment of the settlement house movement and its extended influence in the United States.
Welfare and social services