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Women, Settlements and Poverty

Women, Settlements, and the Redefinition of Poverty


By Jerry D. Marx, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of New Hampshire, Department of Social Work


This article uses primary source documents from the mid 1800s to the early 1900s to discuss women’s roles in the re-conceptualization of poverty in America. It studies the belief drawn from colonial religion that poverty was a result of personal immorality and traces the changing public perception through the turn of the 20th century. The view of poverty that evolved, a conceptualization based in the social research of women settlement house leaders, was one that also considered environmental contributors to individual poverty, thus redefining poverty as a multi-dimensional social problem.  This conceptualization has prevailed in America and continues to inform settlement houses, community multi-service centers, neighborhood development, and other efforts to promote social welfare.


Since the late 1800s, settlement houses in America have allowed people of different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses to participate in activities and learn basic skills with the support of others from their communities. American settlements and the women who led them were not just the result of the Progressive Era in U.S. history; they were a defining force in the Progressive reform agenda. In the process, America gained a multi-dimensional perspective on poverty, one that continues to inform settlement houses, community multi-service centers, neighborhood development, and other efforts to promote social welfare.

Mid-19th Century Views on Poverty

Organized religion was responsible for much of the development of human services in America.The Puritans, English followers of French Protestant reformer, John Calvin, brought their version of the English poor relief system to America in 1620. When capable, families were expected to care for their needy members, while the church was viewed as an extended family. Overseerers of the Poor were elected in each parish to collect taxes for the assistance of destitute individuals or families who had no other financial alternatives. (Marx, 2004)

According to Calvinism, work represented God’s calling on earth for the individual. If apparently able-bodied, yet destitute, the individual was considered immoral and not destined for salvation.  The able-bodied poor, as a result, were treated by colonial society as wicked and undeserving. Those parish members that were poor, but appeared able-bodied were thought to be less deserving of relief than children and the impotent. These “undeserving poor” were more likely to be put to work in a workhouse in exchange for their support.  The workhouse, also  referred to as the poorhouse or almshouse in many communities, combined work and religious instruction, in part, to reform the poor, immoral individual, since idleness, immorality, and poverty were closely related in the minds of many colonists.( Trattner, 1999)

As America entered the 1800s, immorality was still believed by many Americans, reflecting the lasting influence of Calvinism, to be the cause of individual poverty and other social problems such as alcoholism.  In some ways, this was a reasonable conclusion, given the focus on morality of the colonial church and the major role it performed in caring for the poor.  It was also a reasonable conclusion for many Americans, since the nation, in contrast to Europe, offered many opportunities for relatively high-wage jobs and land ownership. In fact, there was a shortage of labor in America. (Jansson, 1997)

For these reasons, the prevailing social wisdom into the mid-19th century was that the causes of poverty lie in the individual.  A June 2, 1855 New York Times article entitled: “The ulcers of the city” complains: “…There seems to be about New York, what one might call ulcer-spots. There are blocks or lanes in the midst of otherwise respectable quarters, which are crowded with the poorest and most dissolute people…Lazy, loafing men are found hanging about the corners…Christianity, Education, Work, are the remedies….”

Women weren’t excluded from this public scrutiny.  Witness a New York Times article on April 4th, 1854:  “…I have entered hundreds of habitations among the lowest of New York poor within a few months, and with two or three exceptions have not seen one tidy room or comfortable meal. This is not from want of time, for in a multitude of cases the women do not attempt to earn anything for the support of the family….”

In fact, it was a common belief that poverty was handed down from one immoral generation to the next.  A February 17th, 1854 article portrayed people living in poverty and scrounging for basic needs as dishonest and criminal.  “…There are ten thousand children in this City alone, who are either without parents or friends, or are trained systematically by their parents to vagrancy, beggary and crime: not only shut out utterly and hopelessly from all moral influences, but exposed day and night to the contamination of crime…” (New York Times, 1854)

Americans of the early to mid-1880s believed alcoholism to be closely related to idleness, immorality, and poverty.  The cause and effect relationship was not entirely clear in the public mind.  This newspaper article on March 6, 1855 entitled “Foreign paupers,” proclaims:  “…But an enlightened people will be sure to forward the good cause by striking at the root of Indolence, which lies at the bottom of all misery. And we do not see why Government should not of right suppress this as well as drunkenness, which we verily believe to be the immediate offspring of idleness….” (New York Times, 1855)

Another newspaper article that same year (October 18th), based on a message from the Governor of Vermont, sees alcoholism causing idleness:  “…Among the causes leading to idleness, poverty, immorality, and crime, the unrestricted use of intoxicating drinks is, beyond question, the most effective in its disastrous results… .” (New York Times, 1855)

The Emergence of Settlements and a New View of Poverty

Public opinion began to change during the “Progressive Era,” a period in American history from about 1900 to 1920, although there is no precise beginning and end to the era. (Marx, 2004)   Following the post-Civil War explosion in industrial growth, it was a time of major reforms in the economic, political, and social institutions of the nation.  The driving force behind much of the reform was women. Excluded from influential roles in government, American women created their own voluntary associations through which they advocated for social changes of relevance to themselves and the nation.

Of most relevance to social work history was the community organizing and social advocacy of the various “settlement houses.”  Using Toynbee Hall in London, England as a model, American settlement houses were private nonprofit organizations, established in poor, inner-city neighborhoods to promote the social welfare of community residents.  In cities such as New York and Chicago, the vast majority of these residents were poor immigrants, recently arrived to fill the labor needs of American factories.  Unlike London where the settlement movement was led by men, women – including social work pioneers such as Jane Addams – became the dominant force in American settlements, eventually comprising 70 percent of settlement residents.  While often inspired by religious conviction, settlement leaders moved beyond their Calvinist predecessors to emphasize scientific methods in defining, preventing, and alleviating poverty. (Leiby, 1997)

More specifically, the settlement houses became prominent leaders in social research and advocacy, staffed as they were by some of the most educated women in the world.  The most famous early settlements were Chicago’s Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr in 1889, and New York City’s Henry Street Settlement, also known as the Nurse’s Settlement, established by nurse, Lillian Wald, in 1895. By 1910, about 400 settlements were operating in the United States. (Trattner, 1997; Coss, 1989; Hunting, 1945)

Jane Addams in the Early 1900's
Jane Addams in the Early 1900’s
Hull-House, Chicago, IL
Hull-House, Chicago, IL

Like charity organization societies of the time, settlement houses were founded on the principle of scientific philanthropy, which maintained that charity work should be based in the latest social science.  Consequently, settlement leaders believed that observation, information gathering, and documentation were prerequisites to social advocacy and change.  In fact, the three “Rs” of settlement house work were Residence, Research, and Reform. (Trattner, 1999)

The women of the settlements differed with their professional sisters in the charity organization societies in at least one fundamental way.  That is, while acknowledging the worth of the individual, for the most part, settlement leaders targeted their reform efforts on the social environment of immigrant neighborhoods in the large industrial cities.  Why? Because they believed “poverty” to be a multidimensional concept produced by multiple factors. This article on settlement houses in the New York Times on March 20th, 1898 discussed their different perspective on poverty:

At the present time almost every well-educated person recognized that day by day it becomes more urgent to find solutions for the many terrible problems of poverty.  The day has gone by when serious-minded people soothed whatever heartache the spectacle of poverty may have caused them by the reflection that only the wicked or lazy were poor.  Nor do many people believe that a generous distribution of alms, tracts, love, and education, “suited for their station in life,” is enough in itself to cure any very serious trouble.  It is at last quite generally realized that only by watching and studying the great machine of society can a way be found to make it run somewhat more smoothly than it does at present.”

The women of the settlement house movement documented many environmental problems contributing to poverty in America, factors produced or magnified by America’s rush to industrialize, factors such as poor health due to industrial accidents, tenement fires, polluted factory air, contaminated mass-produced food, and garbage-filled city streets.  To illustrate, the Lower East Side of New York City contained 330,000 people per square mile, a population density much greater than that of London. (Trattner, 1999)  Industrial cities such as Chicago had grown so fast that much of the housing when built was of poor quality, since it was meant to be temporary. Many tenements were wooden and had no fire escapes. Sometimes the only running water was a backyard faucet. (Addams, 1961)   However, as it turned out, poor immigrant families lived for years in these dwellings, sometimes several families crowding into single units.

The work conditions in the slaughterhouses, other factories and various mines are another example. Work assignments in these settings were reduced to simple, repetitive tasks that any unskilled immigrant could learn quickly.  The problem was that a worker typically repeated the same simple task for twelve hours, six days per week.  These long hours doing repetitive work with dangerous machinery contributed to many industrial accidents, rendering individuals unable to hold their jobs.  In 1914 alone, 35,000 workers were killed and 700,000 injured in industrial accidents. (Zinn, 1995) Jane Addams (1961, p. 132) tells of her observations in Chicago:

“During the same winter three boys from a Hull-House club were injured at one machine in a neighboring factory for lack of a guard which would have cost but a few dollars.  When the injury of one of these boys resulted in his death, we felt quite sure that the owners of the factory would share our horror and remorse, and that they would do everything possible to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. To our surprise they did nothing whatever, and I made my first acquaintance then with those pathetic documents signed by the parents of working children, that they will make no claim for damages resulting from “carelessness….”

As a result of these conditions, during the late 1800s and early 1900s views on reasons for poverty began to change, an education of America significantly influenced by women social scientists involved in settlement work.  The previous belief that individuals who needed financial assistance were immoral was increasingly challenged by the belief that people were in difficult situations because of the environment they were in (Katz, 1996). Contrast the following two New York Times reports on poverty, one from November 30, 1897 and the second from August 20, 1911.  The first article emphasizes the personal traits of the poor, while analyzing the causes of poverty.  “…Of personal character of applicants, 45 per cent are reported good, 17 per cent intemperate, 14 per cent shiftless, 13 percent uncertain, 6 per cent doubtful, and 3 per cent untruthful, and only 2 per cent being classed as criminal….” This analysis was provided by the local Charity Organization Society! Note that in over half of the cases, the source of the poverty is associated with individual character.

Compare this study with one done over a decade later.  In 1911, the New York Times published a list of the top ten causes of poverty. In only about 17 percent of the cases is poverty attributed to bad character!

Disabilities Percent

1. Unemployment                                                                                                60.16

2. Overcrowding                                                                                                  44.68

3. Widowhood                                                                                                      20.44

4. Chronic physical disability other than tuberculosis or rheumatism    27.30

5. Temporary physical disability other than accident                                  19.68

6. More than three children under 14                                                            18.88

7. Intemperance                                                                                                16.66

8. Less than 5 years in New York City                                                            16.28

9. Tuberculosis                                                                                                12.88

10. Desertion and persistent non-support                                                    12.12

Spokesperson, Jane Addams, described her frustration with the outdated conceptualization of poverty in an 1897 news article:  “Fifty years ago, when the poor laws of England were changed, the paupers were placed in the same class with the criminals and the insane, and for the reason that the pauper was thought to be of his own making, that he alone was responsible for his condition. The same system of dealing with the poor and the unfortunate that was inaugurated then prevails now, notwithstanding the fact that since that time conditions have changed materially, and that some consideration must be given to the circumstances that have arisen from the change in society’s status. Economic reasons in plenty may be given for the poor man’s failure in life….” (New York Times, October 13, 1897).

The exploitation of women and children in early industrial America was a large social problem studied by settlement leaders. As previously stated, the long factory work days, particularly for women, who labored at home before “going to work,” resulted in many debilitating injuries for women and children.  These industrial accidents were a significant contributor to poverty. The women of the settlement movement led the way in research, education, and reform concerning the relationship between poor health and poverty. The following article on December 10, 1911 reflects this change in public thinking:

“Sickness, unemployment, widowhood, and underpay, and not intemperance, are the chief causes that compelled 11,000 families to knock at the doors of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, according the association’s sixty-eighth annual report, published yesterday.  Cases of intemperance as a cause of poverty are declared to be comparatively rare. “Examination,” says the report, “made into the records of 1,500 families which we relieved last Summer revealed the fact that sickness was the immediate cause of dependency assigned by the visitor in nearly 50 per cent of the cases, while intemperance appeared to account for less than 2 per cent of dependency in these families.  Unemployment, even in the comparatively busy Summer season, was given as the cause of dependency in more than 23 per cent of the cases….” (New York Times, 1911)

Addams and her colleagues collaborated to convince the president, Theodore Roosevelt to examine the working conditions for women and children in America. In 1912, settlement workers proposed a policy in which people could not be forced to work more than eight hours a day, six days a week. The Progressive Party used this idea of “national minimums” in its campaign for the Presidency that year (Trattner, 1999).

Other settlement women working to reduce and prevent poverty among women and children included Florence Kelley. Kelley, a lawyer who became a resident of Hull House after fleeing an abusive husband, worked inspecting factories in Illinois (Marx, 2004; Katz, 1996). In 1912 she, along with Lillian Wald, the founder of American visiting nurses and a New York settlement house owner, developed the United States Children’s Bureau, a federal research and education agency on child and maternal health.  The studies disseminated by the Bureau provided documentation to support child labor laws and to prevent childhood diseases (Marx, 2004; Trattner, 1999).

Julia Lathrop was another settlement leader. She attended Rockford Female Seminary as Jane Addams had done. She later graduated from Vassar in 1880.   She began working at Hull House in 1890, advocating for children and people suffering from mental illness, another source of poverty. She later took her work to the national level, helping to found the National Commission for Mental Hygiene in 1909.

Lathrop also assisted in the organization of the social work curriculum at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, later becoming the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.  Social work schools like this one emerged during and immediately after the Progressive Era, in part, to promote the study and application of a more scientific approach to charity work, including the prevention of poverty.  In 1912, Lathrop continued her research as Chief of the Children’s Bureau and in 1917, was elected President of the National Conference of Social Work. (Trattner, 1999; Katz, 1996; Marx, 2004)

Edith Abbott and Mary McDowell were two other settlement leaders. Edith Abbott distinguished herself as a social researcher investigating the labor conditions of women and children for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, publishing 19 volumes of findings.   She became an Associate Professor of Economy at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Social Service Administration in 1920, where she later became Dean and Editor of its prestigious journal, the Social Service Review. (Marx, 2004; Katz, 1996).

Mary McDowell started at Hull-House teaching kindergarten, but eventually opened a settlement at the University of Chicago.  During her career, she, along with other settlement women such as Florence Kelley, was a leader in starting the National Consumer’s League in 1899 and the National Womens Trade Union League in 1903. The National Consumers’ League lobbied successfully for safer products, child labor laws, minimum wages, and shorter work days. (Marx, 2004; Skocpol, 1992; Blumberg, 1966; Trattner, 1999).

The Stock Market Crash in 1929 and subsequent Great Depression provided the ultimate evidence that poverty was typically not just the result of personal characteristics, that many systemic and institutional factors may contribute to individual poverty. The social reformers of the Progressive Era provided much of the theory, policies, and programs needed to carry the nation through the massive poverty of the Great Depression. As President Franklin Roosevelt created new public works projects, social insurances and public assistance programs, no one individual was more influential with him than his wife, Eleanor, a woman who received her “professional training” in the settlement houses of New York during the Progressive Era. In the tradition of settlement work, Mrs. Roosevelt observed the poverty and suffering directly while traveling the country, before advising the President on possible remedies. (Marx, 2004)   A prerequisite for this work was a “progressive” redefinition of poverty that considered social as well as individual factors.

The Legacy: Today’s Settlements and Poverty

Since the Great Depression, conceptualization of poverty has tended to emphasize social factors during liberal administrations and individual responsibility during more conservative administrations.  The Kennedy/Johnson administrations are an example of the former, while the Reagan/Bush administrations illustrate the latter.

In any case, the conceptualization of poverty as a multifaceted problem has prevailed.  The recent failed attempts to privatize Social Security testify to the continued public understanding that individual effort and free markets do not ensure a life without poverty. All three sectors – business, government, and private nonprofits – must collaborate to promote well-being. This view lives on in the many settlement houses still operating in the United States as well as in the thousands of multi-service centers, neighborhood and community centers. All must be considered a lasting legacy of the 19th century settlements and the visionary women who led them.

Reference List

Addams, J. (1961). Twenty years at Hull-House. New York: Signet Classic, pp. 65, 132, 210.

Blumberg, D.R. (1966). Florence Kelley: The Making of a Social Pioneer. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, pp. 171-174.

Coss, C. (1989). Ed. Lillian D. Wald: Progressive Activist. New York: The Feminist Press, p. xv.

Friendless children. (1854, April 4). New York Daily Times. Retrieved January 9, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Foreign paupers. (1855, March 6). New York Daily Times. Retrieved January 9, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

For systematic charity: Discussions at the Nineteenth Century Club on the doing of organizations.  Reasons for their dislike. The speakers were Dr. John

Graham Brooks, Miss Jane Addams of the Hull House, Chicago, and Robert Treat Paine. (1897, October 13). New York Daily Times. Retrieved March 12, 2004 from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Hunting, H.B. (1945). Lillian Wald: Crusading Nurse. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, p.13

Jansson, B.S. (1997) The Reluctant Welfare State: American Social Welfare Policies-Past, Present, and Future. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, pp.66, 68-69.

Katz, M. B. (1996). In the shadow of the poorhouse: A social history of welfare in America. New York: BasicBooks, pp. 126, 163, 167, 175.

Leiby, J. (1978). A History of Social Welfare and Social Work in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 128-129.

Marx, J.D. (2004) Social welfare: The American partnership. Boston: Pearson Education, pp. 42, 74, 86, 94-95, 97-100.

Message of the Governor of Vermont. (1855, October 18). New York Daily Times. Retrieved January 9, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Sickness causes poverty.  (1911, December 10). New York Times. Retrieved April 30, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Skocpol, T. ( 1992). Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins Of Social Policy In The United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, p.383, 404.

Statistics of poverty: Charity organization society’s analysis of records of 500 applicants or aid. (1897, November 30). New York Times. Retrieved March 12, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

The friendless children of the city-What can be done for them? (1854, February 17). New York Daily Times. Retrieved December 19, 2003, from the ProQuest Historical

Newspapers Database.

The problems of poverty.  (1898, March 20). New York Times. Retrieved March 23, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

The ulcers of the city. (1855, June 2). New York Daily Times. Retrieved January 9, 2004 From the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Topics of the times. (1917, December 11). Retrieved May 11, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Trattner, W. I. (1999). From poor law to welfare state. New York: The Free Press, pp. 22-23, 164-165; 171, 175-176, 179-182.

Why people are poor in this rich city of New York. (1911, August 20). New York Times. Retrieved April 30, 2004, from the ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database.

Zinn, H. (1995). A People’s History Of The United States: 1492-Present. New York: HarperPerennial,p.320.

7 Replies to “Women, Settlements and Poverty”

    • Thank you for such a fantastic and extremely informative article! I’m taking a graduate level social welfare policy course, and this article is something that every aspiring social worker should read! Bravo!

    • Thanks! I am not done with it. I recently received some original materials from a woman whose Great Aunt was one of the women put in prison for picketing in front of the While House. Stay tuned!! Regards, Jack Hansan

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