From Henry Street to Contracted Services: Financing the Settlement House

Article excerpt

This article tracks historically the direct connection and shifting relationship between the larger political economy, the extent and arrangement of financing, and agency programming in the settlement house from 1886 to the present, with particular attention to agency experience in New York City. During this time the settlements changed from being informal organizations oriented to service provision and community building, in which funding was a highly private matter, to formalized, multiservice agencies dependent on contracted public funds for categorical programs. This transformation resulted not as a linear progression of organizational development but rather as an historical process tied to shifting patterns of political economy and voluntary sector financing.


This article tracks historically the direct connection and shifting relationship between financing and nonprofit social service provision. While this critical linkage has been explored historically for other nonprofit institutions, such as schools and hospitals, it is relatively absent for social service agencies (Hammack, 1996; Hall, 1992). The prism of our exploration, the settlement house, is the quintessential voluntary service agency that has historically struggled to balance service and social action, function and cause. Critically, this exploration of the history of financing social settlements discovered a direct and dynamic relationship between political economy, agency funding, and settlement programming. Within this meta-statement the study proposes a cyclical theory and periodicity regarding settlement programming, financing, and political economy. Moreover, this historical analysis explores the impact of contemporary contracted financing on the capacity of neighborhood-based social agencies to deliver community-based services and engage in the historically and presently critical work of community building.

Historical Change and Political Economy in the Financing of Settlement Houses

Settlements have been a favorite subject of social welfare historians dating back to the 1960s, when Chambers (1963) and Davis (1967) published monographs enthusiastic about the progressive work of settlement houses and their leaders. Since then historians and social work academicians interested in social welfare history have written widely on the settlement house, each with a different lens, asking different questions, looking at different settlements, and often arriving at different conclusions (To sample the divergent literature see Berry, 1986; Crocker, 1992; Karger, 1987; Lasch-Quinn, 1993; Philpott, 1978; Sklar, 1995; Trolander, 1987). Given the prominent place and role of nonprofit service agencies throughout American history, this attention should be expected (Hammack, 1998). What surprises in the settlement literature, however, is a near complete ignoring of financing issues and funding patterns. Little mention is made of the process and extent of settlement funding, and even less to the relation between funding and settlement programming and politics. Part of the reason is that settlements did not keep or leave very good financial records. Funding was a private matter. Until government financing became the norm, settlements were highly informal organizations with scant financial and administrative record keeping.

One way to evaluate settlement history in general and financing patterns in particular is to use a widely adopted social reform model of social welfare history. This model sees social investment as tied to changes in larger contexts. In a nutshell, it proposes that the dominant political economy and historical events of each era help shape and profoundly influence social provision and social change. In more liberal or public eras, the model asserts, activism on the Left increases, the social welfare state expands, as does the importance of social welfare and social investment for reform-oriented service programming such as social settlements. …


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