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Common Threads

   It is easy to draw a picture depicting the early charity workers on the side of paternalism and conservatism, while placing the settlement residents on the side of democracy and egalitarianism. Such a picture is, however, misleading. In spite of their important differences, charity organization workers and settlement workers had much in common.

   Both groups were unusually well educated, dramatically more educated than the people they worked with. Both groups strongly identified with the other major crusades of the time such as women's suffrage and temperance, and both cadres were largely composed of women. Both movements were strongly interested in spiritual concerns and there were easily identified religious strains in their activities. Leaders of settlements and charity organizations preached the gospel of sacrifice and human fellowship and relied heavily on the energies of volunteers from the middle and upper classes. And whether they called it "investigation" or "research", both strongly believed in the twins of progress and science and used the scientific approach and carefully collected their facts before acting.

   Finally, by the time the settlement movement was well underway the charity field had changed considerably from its paternalistic and rigidly lais'ee-faire beginnings. This is perhaps best illustrated by the appearance of settlement leaders at the National Conference On Charities And Corrections as early as 1896. Throughout the 1890s a leading figure in the settlement-based Consumer's League was Josephine Shaw Lowell, one of the original leaders of the charity organizations and long since converted from her earlier inflexible perceptions of the poor. By 1905 the two groups had grown close enough that Jane Addams was elected president of the National Conference and the major journals of the respective movements, Charity and Commons had merged.


   The settlements were not perfect. In their enthusiasm to change and reform society many took on questionable causes and joined crusades that were at best naive. Most came to work with attitudes that today would be considered prejudicial. While a few leaders such as Lillian Wald and Jane Addams rose above the common biases of the times, most settlement workers were, by today's standards, prejudiced and they generally accepted the racial stereotypes that were then so prevalent even among the educated. Most settlements ignored the plight of the urban African American, the Philadelphia survey notwithstanding. The few settlements that tried to respond to African Americans were segregated and forced to create a closed network within the larger settlement movement.

   Problems were associated with the ascendancy of the settlement movement in charity work. Many charity leaders were skeptical that a new profession could be built on a foundation as nebulous as reform. Many settlements looked and felt more like graduate schools than arenas for professional practice. As social work entered the twentieth century, the settlement movement continued to grow in prestige, but its lack of cohesion and the amorphous quality of its activities created problems for leaders interested in establishing a new profession. Overall, however, the lasting impact of the early settlement movement is formidable. It had an enduring influence on both the profession of social work and on society in general.

New York City tenements

Lillian Wald

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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