A month ago, The Hull House Association announced that it was closing its programs and filing for bankruptcy. Most people likely shrigged their shoulders and moved on, barely taking time to read the article that accompanied the headline. But the closing down of one of the longest running social service institutions has profound implications not just on the lives of the individuals and neighborhoods that it served, but also on helping professionals and on the fabric of the social safety net for our society's most vulnerable populations .
As a first year student in my MSW at UC-Berkeley, I took a class that discussed the history and context of social welfare in the US. The work of Jane Addams was presented as a seminal event within this history. Ms. Addams came from an upper class family and was drawn, as many of her peers were, to do something about the social ills that she saw within her city. But she was not one to simply hold fundraisers or volunteer. Her idea was to open a home in a poor neighborhood where she and other volunteers would live to serve the needs of the people.
She wanted to be a part of the community that she was serving. Her feeling was that it was only by getting to know who she served could she provide what was needed. Hull House, a national historic treasure, was this settlement house and was expanded through the following century into a range of services, which at last estimate provided services to 60,000 individuals annually in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Although it was initially privately funded, the Hull House Association had come to relly on public funding for its programs. At some point, it had become almost entirely dependent on the whims of political factions and what they believe about providing for the basic needs of people in this country. The debate over the size of the government which rages currently in the GOP Primary campaigns seems a bit like the death knell of organizations like the Hull House which serve the poor in our communities.
Over the past several years, proceeding even the recent recession, I have worked as a social worker in a medical setting. The benefits and programs for the aged and disabled in this country have slowly been whittled down to the nubbins. While programs like Medicare Part D coverage for medications, or recent changes in health care insurance laws allowing people with pre-existing conditions to get coverage have helped, they do not change the fact that the resources for people who are vulnerable are scarce and frightening to those who are living with disabilities day to do.
In a recent appearance, a prominant GOP front-runner, commented that he was not worried about the very poor in our society. That is what the safety net is for, he quipped. It seems like he has not been paying attention to what is happening to the safety net in our country because it is becoming frayed and on the verge of ripping open altogether.
There are some who see this as a good thing. They believe that those who must use benefits provided through government-funded programs are lazy or malingering. People need to earn the right of being considered worthy of assistance in some way. This is a direct affront to Jane Addams' ideal that all people are inherently worthy of dignity and respect, and part of treating people in such a way is to provide for basic needs when an individual or family can not do so on their own.
Social workers and other helping professionals are being asked to do more with less and less. The options that are available are untenable for most of their clients and would seem like an affront to someone who has not had to deal with any part of the social welfare safety net. They are also suffering the losses of collections and friends to layoffs. In Chicago, the closing of Hull House means the loss of positions and an additional burdens on surrounding social service agencies – a burden which likely they will not be able to fully shoulder.
It may seem like a local problem for Chicago, but the same is happening in cities all around the country. And since the optimism of trickle-down economics, there are no big donors stepping in where government programs are cutting off. The middle class is too anxious about its own financial security to give in basic amounts, and the wealthiest has not necessarily increased their giving.
So what does all this mean? It means that we are creating a more desperate low-class class. It means that those who are middle class are closer to being poor than ever before. It means that we are choosing a government which sets back and allows those with the most needs suffer.
When I first went to Social Work school, it was recommended that students read Unfaithful Angels by Harold Specht. The book decreed the flight of trained social workers into private practice therapy … they were the "unfaithful" angels. But social workers, and other helping professionals, are not angels. We are people who know how to make the most of the tools we are given in a variety of situations. The book by Specht missed the larger societal trends, however; it is our country that has become "unfaithful" to the neediest in its mid.
Even angels can not fly without wings.