I was saddened to learn over the weekend that Chicago’s Hull House will be closing after more than 120 years of service. Founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, Hull House became a standard bearer for the settlement house movement. Addams and Starr mobilized other university-educated do-gooders–they called themselves "residents"—to engage with the immigrants from across Europe who were seeking to scratch out a living in the slums of Chicago’s Near West Side. By living among and learning from the struggling families, homesick workingmen and more than a few ne’er-do-wells in this teeming neighborhood, Hull House’s residents found themselves seeing social problems in a new light—their underlying causes, intertwined effects, and what it would take to solve them. Thus an improbable combination of people, representing in effect the top and bottom 1 percent of society at the time, joined forces to tackle issues ranging from sanitation and truancy to sweatshops and political corruption. The impact rippled across the nation as the work of Hull House and its activists helped establish child labor laws, women’s suffrage, workmen’s compensation, and other hallmarks of the Progressive Era.
Like many long-lived charities that got their start in the 19th century, well before the establishment of the income tax code and the formal designation of nonprofit organizational status, Hull House gradually adapted its operating model over course of the 20th century. Its committed but amateur leadership and staff became increasingly professionalized, and its sources of support shifted from exclusively private philanthropy to what became in recent years as much as 85 percent government funding. These shifts, which reinforced each other, enabled Hull House to grow its budget and deepen its expertise with the expansion of the government-funded safety net. But this also left the organization largely dependent on government grants and contracts and thereby vulnerable in recent years as revenue from these sources grew scarcer. The organization’s leadership tried valiantly to tap back into the type of philanthropy that originally was the organization’s lifeblood. It’s a hard sell, however, for private money to backfill behind receding public funding, especially when the philanthropists in question are less engaged with the organization’s work and have come to see underwriting it as government’s job. The Chicago Tribune headline summarized the result: "Reliance on Government Funds Doomed Hull House: Longtime Social Service Agency No Longer Able to Balance Its Books."
Hull House has not been alone in facing an extremely challenging financial outlook, as we pointed out earlier this month in, "The View From The Cliff: Government-Funded Nonprofits Are Looking Out on Steep Cuts and an Uncertain Future." Indeed, the difficulties Hull House faced and that ultimately led to its closure may have varied in degree but not at all in kind from those with which most human service nonprofits are now grappling. Just as Hull House’s founding signaled the start of a new era in social services in the late 19th century, its demise at the outset of the 21st may come to stand as a milestone marking another reconfiguration of our society’s safety net. The question today for all the parties involved in paying for, delivering, and benefitting from human services in this country—virtually all of us—is not whether a fundamental reconfiguration will occur, but what form it might take.
In this regard, I appreciated an article by Addams biographer Louise Knight in The Nation this week entitled, "As Chicago's Hull House Closes Its Doors, Time to Revive the Settlement Model?" Knight concludes by wondering, "Is the original settlement house method—having everyday 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 such places, though I admit I would like to see the model tried again. But we could benefit from finding new ways, in Addams’ 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."
Can we go back to the point where our safety net is a privately funded set of organizations led by committed volunteers who are working across class and racial lines to engage with fellow citizens trying to better their fate, thereby breaking down those lines in the process? Given that so many human service nonprofits have come to rely predominantly on government funding, and the commitments we’ve made in law and policy to support the vulnerable and marginalized in our society with services delivered by professionals, this seems impossible. However, given the fiscal realities bearing down on us, you don’t have to squint hard to see that the pendulum could be swinging back in this direction. In an increasingly divided society, there may well be some benefits to this happening. As Addams herself observed in Twenty Years At Hull-House, "the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life."