Settling the Poor

  • Prosperity
  • 1889

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr opened Hull House in Chicago, the nation’s first and most influential “settlement house”—a movement that aimed to link successful citizens to the poor, especially immigrants, in relationships of support, mentoring, and friendship. At first, Addams operated Hull House from her inheritance. Later, she received contributions from individuals such as Anita Blaine, Louise Bowen, Mary Smith, and other donors.

By 1907, Hull House had grown to 13 buildings covering most of a city block, with gym, theater, art gallery, boys’ club, cafeteria, residence for working women, libraries, and more; it served thousands of people each week. Among other efforts, Addams ran a labor bureau at Hull House to help residents find jobs, and opened a bank to encourage saving. By 1920, nearly 500 settlement houses existed nationally, and they played an important role in helping America assimilate millions of new arrivals during our decades of heaviest immigration.

Over the years, Addams shifted away from direct instruction and assistance to the poor, and increasingly focused on influencing public policies. She began to question the practice of “middle-class moralists” who urged on the lower classes “the specialized virtues of thrift, industry, and sobriety.” Historian Joel Schwartz describes this shift as “tragic” because it “discouraged poor people from practicing precisely the behaviors that are most likely to allow them to escape their poverty.” As dependency and the welfare state grew, the personal service to the poor that settlement houses had provided declined, and Hull House, after decades of powerful service, finally shut its doors.

  • Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (Empire, 2013),
  • Jean Bethke Elshtain (ed.), The Jane Addams Reader (Basic Books, 2001)
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