The Settlement House Tradition: Current Trends and Future Concerns

By Koerin, Beverly | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Settlement House Tradition: Current Trends and Future Concerns


Koerin, Beverly, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The settlement tradition represents a comprehensive approach that "strengthens individual and neighborhood assets, and builds collective capacity to address community problems" (Hirota, Brown, & Martin, 1996, p. i). While there is a rich literature on the history of the settlement movement, there is little information about contemporary settlement houses. This paper reports findings of a national survey of settlement houses/neighborhood centers that provide information about programs and services offered, populations served, unmet community needs, and policies or trends that contribute to or respond to these needs.

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In recent years, there have been calls within the social work profession for a return to our settlement house roots (e.g., Husock, 1993; Jacobson, 2001; Lundblad, 1995). In contrast to an individualized and deficit-oriented approach, the settlement tradition represents a comprehensive approach that "strengthens individual and neighborhood assets, and builds collective capacity to address community problems" (Hirota, Brown, & Martin, 1996, p. i). Over the years, settlement houses have remained multi-service neighborhood centers. However, "an increasingly fragmented and categorical funding environment" has contributed to "limited opportunities for community-building approaches" in contemporary centers (Hirota et al., p. i).

Settlement houses have often been on the front line of community change, recognizing and responding to unmet needs created by demographic, economic, and policy trends. The twin objectives of the settlement movement were to provide immediate services and to work for social reform (Trolander, 1987). To what extent do contemporary neighborhood centers continue the settlement house tradition? There is little information about contemporary settlement houses/neighborhood centers, but there is an extensive literature on the rich history of the settlement house movement.

Literature Review

Settlement House: Historical Perspective

The settlement movement was influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when most settlement houses were established, predominantly in northern and midwestern urban centers. The movement began in response to a rapidly growing immigrant population, large-scale industrialization, and the problems of urban slums. Settlement leaders "sought to overcome the centrifugal forces of urban disintegration to restore order to a society that had lost coherence, to maintain face-to-face friendship in a society increasingly impersonal and anonymous" (Chambers, 1963, p. 115). Settlement houses developed a broad array of services to address social ills, as well as programs that were not problem-focused, such as day nurseries and kindergartens, courses in child care and domestic science, recreational/educational groups, lending libraries, and cultural activities--art, music, theater, folk festivals. The diversity of programs reflected the needs of individual neighborhoods, changing social conditions, and the belief that the "range of settlement activity must be as wide as human need...." (Woods, 1923, p. 48).

But even with such diverse programs, "the settlements, by themselves, could no more than nibble at problems whose solutions ... required concerted action of the entire community" (Chambers, 1963, p.17). Therefore, settlement leaders were also involved in social reform activities. They influenced municipal governments to set aside land for parks and playgrounds and to improve sanitation and public health programs; they engaged in political activism to effect reform at local, state, and national levels on such issues as minimum wage, child labor laws, and woman's suffrage. Thus, the settlement house movement reflected a dual responsibility for social service and social reform. The "most immediate work" of the settlement was to meet individual needs, but in such a way that "progress is ... made toward removing the social need for giving that particular kind of help to other individuals" (Holden, 1922, p. …

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