http://www.amazon.com/Jane-Addams-Dream-American-Democracy/dp/0465019137/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249417602&sr=1-1Though her good works are largely forgotten today, Jane Addams (1861-1935) was one of the most prominent American philanthropists—and one of the most prominent American women—of the twentieth century. Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House, one of America’s best-known settlement houses, in 1889. She soon won fame and overwhelming popular approval as the most articulate exponent of the settlement house philosophy, which brought middle-class people into poor immigrant neighborhoods to help residents there escape poverty. In addition to exemplifying personal service to the poor in this way, Addams also cogently and successfully advocated government action on behalf of the impoverished, arguing for things like maximum-hour laws limiting the workday, unemployment insurance, and regulations designed to ensure the safety of factories and tenements.
Hoping to make the case for the importance of Addams’ legacy, Jean Bethke Elshtain, a prominent political scientist and ethicist at the University of Chicago, has written an intellectual biography of Addams and also edited a welcome collection of excerpts from Addams’ voluminous writings.
Elshtain is more concerned to defend Addams as a thinker than as a doer, describing her as a “first-rate thinker and a gifted writer with extraordinary social and political influence.” But Addams’ thinking and writing grew out of her experiences at Hull House; so Elshtain also argues for the significance of what Addams accomplished there.
Most criticism of Addams and Hull House—like most scholarship on the history of American social welfare efforts—comes from a leftist perspective. Thus Elshtain’s defense of Addams often incorporates critiques of radical arguments that have been made against her, while emphasizing Addams’ own disagreements with the left. For example, Elshtain quotes Addams’ description of socialism as a “doctrinaire radical creed,” and she emphasizes Addams’ rejection of leftist ideology: “Addams never trafficked in such categories as ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeois.’”
In many respects Addams can in fact be seen as a conservative figure who would fit comfortably within the ranks of the traditionalist forces in today’s culture wars. Her conservatism is most obvious in her critique of what we now call recreational sex. Addams would undoubtedly disapprove of the contemporary sexual revolution (just as she disapproved of the far milder sexual revolution of the 1920s), because she sensibly feared “the havoc [that is] wrought by the sexual instinct when uncontrolled.” Elshtain ably defends the contemporary relevance of this aspect of Addams’ thought, understanding as she does that it is the work of culture not to liberate sexuality but to elevate it: “Natural impulses [are] to be shaped, made beautiful, and interpreted.”
Hull House was at least as much an educational enterprise as a charitable one, offering a range of academic and practical courses to its immigrant clientele. In one respect Addams’ educational practice was also notably traditionalist, in that it emphasized the classics of the Western intellectual tradition. Elshtain observes that Addams herself was deeply influenced by “great texts in Western politics, religion, law, and literature,” and this interest was clearly reflected in the Hull House curriculum, which included offerings in Greek and Latin literature, the Bible, and Shakespeare.
Elshtain suggests that Addams can be seen as a conservative in yet another respect: a critic before the fact of the failings of the welfare state. She contends that Addams “would have emerged as a critic of what the postwar welfare state became, with its mode of top-down social provision and its turning of would-be and should-be citizens into clients.” To Addams, the poor were “active architects of their own destinies”; she would therefore have opposed “any suggestion of the dependence or subordination of the needy to those presumably in a position to satisfy their needs.”
But Elshtain’s defense of Addams is not altogether persuasive. To begin with, Addams herself believed in bigger government. She thought that settlements offered social services as pilot programs, and she hoped that government would eventually step in to provide these services. But as Howard Husock of Harvard University has observed, “It turned out, contrary to the expectations of Jane Addams and others, that government was simply incapable of doing what the settlements did.” Government can provide social services on an impersonal basis, but it cannot facilitate the neighborly interaction with the poor that characterized the settlements at their best.
For all of her criticisms of socialism, Addams remarked in 1903 that “I suppose I am sort of a socialist, because I believe in a good deal of collectivism.” (Elshtain does not include this remark in her biography.) Addams certainly did not advocate class warfare or government ownership of the means of production. But Elshtain agrees that Addams should be understood as a social democrat, and as Elshtain notes, “social democracy is not a philosophy of individualism.”
Addams’ critique of individualism is apparent in her discussion of poverty, which is seriously flawed. She contended that the industrial revolution had made it generally impossible for poor people to work their way out of poverty. Although “the benevolent individual of . . .  honestly believed that industry and self-denial in youth would result in comfortable possessions for old age,” Addams asserted that this belief was no longer credible. Instead, Addams claimed that in her time individualist virtues such as “temperance and cleanliness and thrift” were rightly understood by the poor to be “impossible virtues.”
Addams argued that to commend virtues like these as a route out of poverty was unfair to the poor. Notwithstanding Elshtain’s contention that Addams rejected the proletarian/bourgeois distinction, Addams intimated that the individualist virtues characterized some members of the bourgeoisie but did not apply to the working class. To urge workers to practice these virtues was to be “incorrigibly bourgeois,” hence not to recognize that “the conventions of [the bourgeois] class . . . fail to fit the bigger, more emotional, and freer lives of working people.” Because bourgeois values were supposedly irrelevant to workers, Addams maintained that it was wrong “ruthlessly [to] force our conventions and standards” upon the poor.
This line of argument (which is quoted from one of the documents in Elshtain’s book of readings, although it is not discussed in her biography) sounds eerily like the rationale offered for the welfare explosion of the 1960s. Just like Addams, influential writers like Michael Harrington (author of The Other America) insisted that the poor are largely incapable of self-help, and that those who emphasize their capacity to help themselves fail to understand the irrelevance of middle-class virtues to the lives of the poor.
These considerations suggest that Addams can plausibly be seen as an advocate of unreformed welfare—not as the critic of pre-reform welfare that Elshtain portrays. Note in particular that Addams wrote approvingly of “the love and patience which minister to need irrespective of worth.” To defend the unconditional granting of aid to the poor in this way lays the intellectual ground for the support of welfare as an entitlement. By contrast, the 1996 welfare reform movement has succeeded insofar as it ended welfare’s entitlement status.
In short, the standard radical critique of Addams and the settlement house movement has been that she and it erred by forcing middle-class views upon the poor. But a more pertinent criticism would make exactly the opposite charge. One might argue instead that Addams was not sufficiently willing to acknowledge the relevance of middle-class virtues to the lives of the poor, to emphasize the way in which the bourgeois ethic of hard work, thrift, and self-discipline can enable the poor to make their way out of poverty.
Elshtain has written an adulatory biography because she believes that Jane Addams “represent[s] the American experiment at its best.” If E. M. Forster offered two cheers for democracy (and Irving Kristol two cheers for capitalism), at a minimum Elshtain would offer three for Jane Addams. But for anyone concerned about breaking the cycle of dependency and self-destructive behavior among the poor, Addams deserves at best about one-and-a-half.
Still, Elshtain’s biography (and in particular her edited collection of Addams’ writings) may accomplish something worthwhile. Addams was extremely thoughtful if sometimes wrong-headed; if she is often worth disagreeing with, she is always worth reading. One hopes that Elshtain’s books will help to rescue Addams from the unfortunate obscurity into which she has fallen.
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editory of Philanthropy and author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.