Philip Schiff (1901-1958) — Settlement House Headworker, Pioneer Social Worker and Community Activist
Philip Schiff was born October 18, 1901 in New York’s Lower East Side. His immigrant parents struggled with poverty, and Philip knew first-hand the consequences of poor housing, unemployment, and inadequate health care. Fortunately, as a child, young Philip Schiff discovered Madison House, a neighborhood settlement house founded by the Ethical Culture Society. Madison House and its club leaders not only salvaged “the toughest little terror of a none- too-milk toast neighborhood” (New York Times, June 22, 1939) but were the crucible for Schiff’s life-long commitment to social justice.
After graduating in 1921 with a business degree from NYU’s night school, Schiff worked as an accountant but continued his involvement with Madison Houses as a club leader and member of the Board of Directors. From 1932 to 1939, he became a full-time Madison House staff member, first as Boys Worker and then as Headworker in 19034.
As headworker at Madison House during The Great Depression, Schiff, like so many other settlement house workers, tried to cope with the immediate problems of relief, unemployment, and evictions. He established a day care center, introduced venereal disease and tuberculosis control programs, and started a vocational training program for unemployed youth. he was also was a community organizer and helped create a network of Lower East Side social service agencies to advocate for social welfare policies, especially unemployment and housing. In 1936, Philip Schiff ran unsuccessfully on the American Labor Party’s ticket for First Assembly representative to the New York State legislature.
In 1939, Schiff left New York to become director of the New Orleans Young Men and Young Women’s Hebrew Association. In 1942 he was appointed Washington Representative of the National Jewish Welfare Board, a job he held until his death in 1958.
In Washington, Schiff not only represented the National Jewish Welfare Board as liaison to the military services and the USO, but also became active in the local and national social work community. He was a member of the executive committee of the National Association of Jewish Center Workers; chairman, Washington DC chapter of the American Association of Social Workers; and first chairman of the Washington DC National Association of Social Workers. He also was chairman of the National Public Social Policies Committee of the American Association of Social Workers.
During his Washington years, Phil worked with numerous organizations to create social action coalitions that could identify and respond to local, state, and federal problems such as social insurance, rehabilitation services, housing, health, immigration and international social welfare.
Inabel Lindsey, dean of social work at Howard University, summarized Phil’s contributions to social work in a memorial meeting of the Washington chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, September 25, 1958.
“His unflagging ambition for the attainment of the democratic objectives of our nation was reflected in the breadth of his interests. His concern for the total public welfare, civil liberties, youth, religious life, community social planning, political integrity and leadership the United Nations, social work as a profession and education for it, the removal of barriers between people — were all expressed in his many activities on the local, national, and international scenes.”
Source: NASW Social Work Pioneers