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Relief & Reform From The Settlement Movement to The New Deal

by Ohio Digital News

Toynbee Hall at the time of its opening in 1884Toynbee Hall at the time of its opening in 1884In December 1884, Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta along with friends from Oxford University established Toynbee Hall in Commercial Street, Whitechapel. Named after their friend, fellow reformer and Oxford historian Arnold Toynbee who had recently passed away, the founders’ vision was to create a center for social research where privileged students would live and work. Their expectation was that “settling in” amongst East London’s poor would improve mutual understanding and ease class tensions.

From this undertaking sprang the Settlement Movement, the (academic) members of which aimed at bridging the divisions in urban society and eradicating poverty. The organization’s facilities, sponsored by charitable donations and operated by volunteer workers, supplied shelter, child care and educational support.

Supporters of the movement believed that ameliorating the condition of the poor was best pursued by philanthropic means rather than through political intervention. Benevolence was considered a British virtue.

The initiative was lauded by the Church of England as altruistic, but lambasted by political radicals as patronizing. The idea of a charitable organization working in urban slums to address the causes of poverty and destitution would soon find a following in New York City and elsewhere in the United States.

Stanton CoitStanton CoitThe Settlement Movement

Having spent three months at Toynbee Hall as a co-worker, the settlement movement model was introduced to New York City in 1886 by Stanton Coit, founder of the Neighborhood Guild (later renamed University Settlement House) in a basement on Forsyth Street, Manhattan.

The organization aimed at delivering social and educational backing to immigrants and struggling families. Coit was a pioneer of Progressive Era reform and the impact of his undertaking would spread quickly. The “progressives” joined forces to make American society a better (less corrupt), safer and more equal place in which to live.

Born into a wealthy liberal family in Cedarville, rural Illinois, Jane Addams was a well-educated young woman and an avid reader. Charles Dickens sparked her passion to fight injustice and inequality.

She visited Toynbee Hall in 1888. A year later, motivated by the experience, she and her lesbian partner Ellen Gates Starr established Hull House in an immigrant slum of Chicago, offering classes in English literacy, a day care center for children of working mothers, a community kitchen in addition to medical advice and support.

The couple set out to raise the condition of the inner-city poor and needy.

Bohemian immigrant youth at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in 1918 in East St. Louis, IllinoisBohemian immigrant youth at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in 1918 in East St. Louis, IllinoisThe sprawling Settlement Movement played a crucial role in alleviating America’s stressed social services between 1890 and 1910, when more than twelve million Europeans migrated to the country. Most newcomers lived in overcrowded and disease-ridden tenements.

Christianity remained an inspiration, but the American Settlement Movement was grounded on both harsh social realities and the democratic ideal of shared prosperity. It focused on the social environment of urban slums, specifically on the urgent need to provide care and education for immigrant women and children.

The movement attracted the active involvement of many college-trained women. Alienated from a society that failed to utilize the potential of their professional talent, they experienced this form of participation as a meaningful contribution to public life.

Having ended her formal education, Eleanor Roosevelt served as a volunteer teacher at Manhattan’s Riveton Street Settlement House (founded in 1889). By 1908 there were nineteen such places in New York City.

With the rapid expansion of the settlement house-system, a vast network of “Americanising” centers sprang up all over the nation. Those who took part were driven by the desire to help groups of struggling newcomers to integrate and make their way up in society, but there were pitfalls in the process.

Many immigrants rejected relief workers as meddlesome interlopers who showed little regard for their former ways of life or cultural histories.

M. A. Tricca, Christodora House, ca. 1934. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)M. A. Tricca, Christodora House, ca. 1934. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)Relief Administration

In 1912, a young man by the name of Harry Lloyd Hopkins graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa. Inspired by his mother’s Methodist convictions, his choice of College had been a principled one as Grinnell embraced the “Social Gospel” ethos that linked Christian ideals to politics by declaring “war” on political corruption, social deprivation and child labor.

Hopkins found employment as a social worker at Christodora (Gift of Christ) House at 143 Avenue B in the East Village. At the time of its foundation in 1897, Christodora was the only settlement house in in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

An initiative with a Protestant agenda, it provided low-income and immigrant families with shelter and food as well as educational and health services. The direct experience of dire poverty in an area dominated by a multitude of immigrants made a lasting impact on Hopkins and determined his career.

It also made him realize that what Thomas Carlyle called the “rose-water method” of Christian philanthropy could never be a solution to social injustice. Such an approach merely sustained the status-quo.

If settlements were to make an impact, they had to identify public programs and push for wider provision on a city or state level. Strategic political policy was the only means of fighting urban pauperism.

In 1915, New York’s 95th Mayor John Purroy Mitchel had the foresight to appoint Hopkins as Executive Secretary of the Bureau of Child Welfare which administered pensions to mothers with dependent children.

It was the first stage in his pioneering role as a social reformer that would lead to him being appointed Executive Director of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) in October 1931 which provided relief for approximately 160,000 New Yorkers in need.

Great Depression

The Great Depression of 1929 caused economic havoc. Many Americans lost their jobs and homes, becoming dependent on relief money from the government to survive. Most federal support efforts failed because of incompetence, mismanagement and internal wrangling.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in January 1933, he faced a daunting challenge. Nearly a quarter of the total work force in the United States was unemployed.

By that time, Hopkins had gained nearly two decades of experience in welfare administration. He had worked with (then) Governor Roosevelt in New York City and the two were like-minded colleagues and friends.

The President made it his mission to alleviate the social misery. His New Deal plan created a number of government-run programs to administer relief to the homeless and create much
needed jobs.

On May 22, 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was inaugurated. Hopkins was appointed to run and direct the program. Within days he proposed a plan of action (rather than wasting time on further debate) which the President approved.

The scheme would eventually put millions of people back to work and institute the doctrine that adequate public relief was a right that citizens in need should expect to receive from their government. The modern “welfare state” was born.

Hopkins hired and trained a team of researchers. The investigators’ specific job description was to travel to small towns across America and document the difficulties and struggles of ordinary people.

In this way, the government could better understand the problems the people faced and come up with possible solutions. With the widening scope of the relief program into agricultural areas, compelling additional information on rural deprivation was supplied by a woman who had spent most of her youth in a Manhattan slum district.

Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, ca 1935 (Oakland Museum of California)Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, ca 1935 (Oakland Museum of California)Dorothea Lange was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, to second-generation German immigrants. After her father left the family, her mother was forced to take her two children to the Lower East Side.

Left on her own for large parts of the day by her working single mother, young Dorothea wandered Manhattan’s teeming streets, spellbound by the diversity of people and outfits she witnessed. She learned to look without intruding, an observational skill that would become of great value in her later profession.

Having studied photography at Columbia University, Lange worked as an apprentice in a number of New York studios. In her early twenties, she and a friend left New York and headed west on a travel adventure.

Robbed of her money in San Francisco in 1918, Lange found a job at the photo counter of a drug store and started mixing with the Bay Area art community.

She soon opened a successful society portrait studio at 540 Sutter Street, near Union Square, which became a hangout for artists, bohemians and the liberal rich. In 1920 Dorothea married Maynard Dixon, a painter of the American West (nicknamed “The Last Cowboy in San Francisco”).

Initially success came easy, but the Depression changed all that. As her business diminished, she started observing and capturing the world around her, taking shots of labor strikes and protest rallies. For her, there was no escape from political engagement.

Crisis & Camera

The crisis devastated both city and country. Drought and dust storms in the Midwest and Southwest added to the socio-economic desolation. During the Dustbowl Era of the mid-1930s some 300,000 men, women and children moved west to California in search of work.

These migrant families were referred to as “Okies” (as from Oklahoma) regardless of where they came from. In dilapidated cars or trucks, they wandered from place to place following the harvests.

Having left her studio, Lange began photographing these Okie families in order to document their lives in appalling Squatter Camps and Shanty Towns where, due to poor sanitation and a lack of running water, disease ran rampant. Meager pay made medical attention unaffordable.

It was here that she found her purpose and mission as a photographer. Lange had little interest in classifying her photographs as art: she handled her camera to effect social change.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939 (Viking Press, wraparound jacket of the first edition)John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939 (Viking Press, wraparound jacket of the first edition)Distributed to newspapers across the country, her striking images became symbols of the era (and bear kinship with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel of Okies forced to migrate from the Dust Bowl).

Lange’s ability to confront and communicate desperate social circumstances was recognized by Paul Schuster Taylor, an agricultural economist at the University of California who would become her second husband. In early 1935, on Taylor’s recommendation, she started work for the California State Emergency Relief Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Together with her new husband, she traveled the Californian coast and Midwest, documenting rural poverty and the ruthless exploitation of sharecroppers and migrant laborers. Taylor interviewed subjects and gathered economic data, while Dorothea produced photographs with accompanying information and field notes.

In early March 1936, Lange entered a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California, where she met 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson, one of the pickers whose livelihoods had been devastated by that season’s crop failure. She took seven exposures of Florence with various combinations of her children.

One of these, focused on the mother’s tormented face with two small children against her shoulders and a baby in her lap, transformed the sitter into a Madonna-like figure. It became an
icon of the Great Depression and the plight of migrant farm workers.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936 (MoMA, New York)Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936 (MoMA, New York)The image was first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1940, under the title “Pea Picker Family, California.” Now known as “Migrant Mother,” it remains one of the most recognizable photographs in history.

Dorothea Lange was more than an “objective” documentarian; her images were grounded in her own memories of destitution and anchored in a deep understanding of human suffering.

Having shared the hardship of life in a Manhattan slum, she empathized with the victims of the Dust Bowl catastrophe. A driven person in pursuit of justice, she raised photography to a political act. Her images perfectly match the way she saw the world. The “Migrant Mother” still speaks to us today.

Illustrations, from above: Toynbee Hall at the time of its opening in 1884; Stanton Coit; Bohemian immigrant youth at the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House in 1918 in East St. Louis, Illinois; A. Tricca’s “Christodora House,” ca. 1934 (Smithsonian American Art Museum); Dorothea Lange’s “Family Walking on Highway, Oklahoma, June 1938” (Library of Congress); Dorothea Lange in Texas on the Plains, ca 1935 (Oakland Museum of California); John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939 (Viking Press, wraparound jacket of the first edition); and Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” 1936 (MoMA, New York).

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