In the context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, poverty and immigration were deeply interconnected. Unlike the educated, skilled German immigrants who fled political persecution and came to America in the mid-nineteenth century, the predominantly southern and eastern European immigrants of the Progressive age were mostly poor and unskilled. They took the lowest-paying jobs because they were the most desperate for work, and they occupied some of the most dilapidated inner-city housing. Significantly, they also became associated with poverty, filth, and disease in the minds of many native-born American citizens who looked on the newcomers with a combination of fear and pity, much as their predecessors had viewed the starving and impoverished Irish newcomers of the 1840s and 50s. Of course, not all immigrants were poor and not all poor people were immigrants. But in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century climate of widespread alarm over increases in both immigration and poverty, preexisting stereotypes concerning the immigrants' culture, religion, and ethnicity combined with popular notions about poor people to shape American attitudes towards both immigrants and the poor.
The Progressive movement actually helped to engender two diametrically opposed views of the homeless and destitute in America. Before the late nineteenth century, most people thought of the poor as victims of their own making; they were thought to be morally weak, or perhaps even "hereditarily predisposed" to a life of poverty (that is, laziness and poor spending habits were thought to be inherited through the generations, reflecting a very aristocratic view of the world in which people born into a certain class were destined to remain there). But by the late nineteenth century, some Progressives—particularly those working for settlement houses, and eventually also professionals in municipal reform and welfare agencies—began to argue that the causes of poverty might be rooted in the economy and the lack of resources or opportunities available to the indigent. This new understanding of poverty consequently affected popular perceptions of many downtrodden groups, including immigrants. As historian John Higham explained, "as social workers fell into line they too saw the immigrants not as an oppressive burden but as an oppressed minority.... After 1910 very few social workers who had intimate contact with foreign groups favored a further restriction of immigration."27
Yet this perspective was limited to a relatively small portion of the population; few Americans actually had sustained intimate contact with foreign groups, since before 1920 most Americans lived in rural areas and poor immigrants were crammed into urban slums, where they mostly worked and socialized with fellow members of their own class and background. As time went on and poverty persisted—despite the establishment of a few settlement houses and legislative measures to redress the issue—many Americans turned against the underclass. When early reforms failed to solve the problem of poverty in America, many reformers blamed the poor instead of their own ineffective policies, turning to contemporary social and racial theories to explain poverty's stubborn hold on the cities. The pseudoscientific (and very popular) "Social Darwinist" theories of the period argued that "inferior" races—which included the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were considered to belong to separate "races"—were biologically inferior to Anglo-Saxons and were therefore naturally lazier, less intelligent, and more uncivilized than their old-stock American "superiors." Such theories had the effect of reinforcing old ideas: specifically, that poor people were hereditarily predisposed to be poor. This notion characterized the indigent as condemned victims of their own ethnic heritage.
Since inherited pauperism was thought to be incurable, some Progressive charity workers and other reformers argued that the government must intervene to restrict immigration from regions like southern and eastern Europe, the sources of "inferior" races that had been entering the United States in rapidly increasing numbers since about 1880. Under the provisions of the first general immigration law in 1882, lunatics, convicts, and imbeciles (a flexible category that could be applied to anyone who struck a border agent as stupid, with obvious ethnic prejudices operating in its practice) were banned from entering America. The government set up a welfare fund for those who did successfully immigrate by taxing the immigrants themselves, initially at 50¢ per person (this "head tax" proceeded to increase throughout the Progressive Era).28 That same year, Congress caved in to public pressure and banned all Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Amazingly, most people did not see these two restrictive measures as interrelated; many European immigrants actually campaigned for the Chinese Exclusion Act, and many white nativists argued for the restriction of European immigration without saying anything about the so-called "Oriental" issue.29 All Asian immigrants would be effectively banned by subsequent legislation in the 1920s, and Chinese people would not regain immigration or naturalization rights until China became a key American ally during World War II.30
Progressives influenced immigration restriction policies, but they were not solely responsible for enacting them; John Higham has argued that "if broader segments of American society and thought had not also succumbed to a crisis mood, the nativist drift... would have been far less pronounced." But a "crisis mood" did emerge, growing out of a dozen sources of unrest; from the labor militancy of the Gilded Age, from the temperance activists' complaints about drunken immigrant workers, from the reformers' concerns about the "overpopulation" of urban slums with poor, uneducated, "inferior" immigrant families, and from the First World War-era paranoia over outside agitators and foreign radicals. The strict immigration quota systems that Congress passed temporarily in 1921 and then permanently in 1924 were the outcome of this "crisis mood," and they remained in effect until the 1960s. By the time the National Origins Act was passed in 1924, the Progressive movement was running out of steam. Progressives had already accomplished several of their key goals—temperance, women's suffrage, and various political reforms—and many of the reformers themselves had grown disenchanted with the Progressive ideals, while others were simply tired of crusading. As a conservative, isolationist bent took hold in America, the National Origins Act of 1924 quickly shut off the flow of immigrants into the country. Over the next quarter century, less than 3 million people would immigrate to the United States, about as many as had come in just two years before World War I.31
Even in a climate of growing isolationism and xenophobia, some activists sought to create a more welcoming and just society for America's newcomers. Jane Addams, one of the most important social reformers in American history, was perhaps the most proiminent Progressive working to alleviate the effects of urban poverty. Addams was a representative "new woman" of the Progressive Era—educated, independent, ambitious, and dedicated to reforming and improving the society around her. One of more than 80,000 women to graduate from American colleges by 1900, she was determined to put her knowledge to good use.32 She strove to remedy a worsening social problem—class inequality—by providing the poor with a range of social services at Hull House, the old Chicago mansion that Addams converted into America's first "settlement house." Addams's work there inspired a broad settlement house movement in many American cities. The settlements ultimately did not solve the crisis of poverty or end the exploitation of the working poor, but Addams's work nonetheless epitomized some of the best aspects of Progressivism and had a powerful effect on not only the poor people who benefited from the services she provided, but also on a new generation of middle-class reformers.
Addams and other proponents of the "social gospel" movement in the 1880s and '90s sought to bring about a new socially conscious version of Christianity, moving away from the church's traditional emphasis on individual responsibility for sin and its exclusive focus on religious salvation. Though social gospel followers ultimately composed only a minority of American churchgoers, they nonetheless filled an important leadership role in the Progressive movement. They represented the beginnings of a shift in popular ideas about the poor and social ethics.
Inspired by the first settlement house established a few years earlier at Toynbee Hall in East London, Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr built the first American settlement house in 1889. They converted Chicago's old Hull mansion into a space designed to bring middle-class reformers into direct contact with the underclasses, to foster closer ties between classes and to allow the reformers to offer support and guidance to the urban poor. The movement soon took hold; by 1897, some 74 settlement houses were established in cities across America, most of them run by women. By 1920, there were almost 500 settlement houses in the country.33 College-age volunteers (primarily from the middle- and upper-classes) established libraries, playgrounds, and clubs for poor adults and children. The settlements were used as nurseries, employment bureaus, theaters, art galleries, cafeterias, libraries, and gymnasiums, among other functions. These radically new living experiments made connections across traditional boundaries that had kept Americans divided: class, language, religion, gender, age, race, and cultural differences between residents and volunteers were at least partially transcended. Some settlement house residents joined up with volunteer workers in promoting Progressive causes like child labor laws, compulsory school attendance, industrial safety, worker's rights, municipal sanitation improvements, and women's suffrage.
Hull House produced an entire generation's worth of accomplished female social activists. In 1899, Hull House resident Julia Lathrop united forces with Addams to help persuade the Illinois state legislature to establish the first juvenile court in the United States. Florence Kelley, another Hull House resident, was a divorced mother of three who went on to become the secretary of the National Consumer's League, which organized boycotts—primarily led by women—to pressure businesses that exploited workers. Alice Hamilton also lived at Hull House; she became a pioneer of industrial medicine and the first female professor at Harvard Medical School.
Addams attracted all of these exceptional figures to Hull House, but her main focus was always upon the thousands of ordinary folk who turned up there each week seeking assistance. The staggering demand for services was evidenced by Hull House's rapid expansion; by 1907, the settlement complex sprawled across thirteen buildings covering nearly an entire city block. Addams was an extremely ambitious reformer who struggled to overcome overwhelming obstacles. Broad social forces—staggering wealth inequality, deep prejudice against poor immigrant "races," widespread fear of "subversives"—aligned against the kind of reform she hoped to enact. Driving her settlement experiment was Addams's bedrock commitment to improving living conditions in America's urban slums. Inner-city slums existed long before the Civil War. In the 1840s, wealthy and middle-class families in New York abandoned their homes in burgeoning industrial areas, and those units were converted into so-called "tenements" that offered low-cost residences for the poor. Tenements subdivided buildings into tiny, overcrowded, unhygienic living spaces. They offered a profitable investment for landlords who made money by cramming as many tenants as possible into their properties. After the Civil War, tenement housing spread to every major American city. Poor urban residents found themselves living in squalid conditions, with one or even two families sharing a living space equivalent to a dark, stifling closet. Owners built these units right on top of one another in order to maximize rentable space for each square inch of land; little if any open space was left for sunlight, trees, or grass. The tenements typically had no heat, air circulation, electricity, toilets, or running water, and quickly became breeding grounds for rats and disease.
By 1894, almost half of New York City's residents lived in "dumbbell" tenement houses, so named for the shape of their floor plans. These residences were supposed to be model housing units, with "fireproof" stairways, an outside window for every room, and a toilet for every two families. They were usually five or six stories high, built on twenty-five-by-ninety-foot lots—a shape that was supposed to make things better for tenants, providing for more exposure to light. (Many earlier tenements had no windows at all.) Nonetheless, the new tenements' dumbbell shape did not necessarily equate to substantive improvements in housing, and the dumbbell tenements quickly became as overcrowded as all of their predecessors.34 Most of them lacked running water, toilets, bathtubs, or backyards. Meanwhile, owners charged exorbitant rents, and if tenants could not afford to pay in advance or tried to make landlords fix problems with the building, they quickly found themselves evicted.
Hoping to address the tenement crisis, Addams took a savvy approach that not only stressed the hardships of the poor, but also the potentially harmful effects on the middle and upper classes if they did not act to alleviate the worst aspects of American poverty. She delivered several important public addresses and published Twenty Years at Hull-House in 1910 to advocate Progressive action, not simply Progressive ideas. Addams argued that no American could truly enjoy security and stability unless "the good we secure for ourselves... is secured for all of us."35 She also described how middle- and upper-class girls were often raised to be well informed of the "distress in the world," from the "suffering in Siberia" to the downtrodden slums of "the forgotten region of East London," but despite parents' cultivation of "altruistic tendencies" in their daughters, these same girls were prevented from acting to offset such evils "unless the efforts are called missionary."36 In other words, young women could not become Progressive activists unless they were missionaries, because so many families were too concerned about their young daughters living and working in poor conditions or in unconventional fields that might be construed as socially taboo or controversial. Addams wrote that this mixture of conservatism and old-fashioned gender restrictions could prove tragic, since "we have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily."37
Progressive-era social critics and reformers advised that young men should engage in vigorous physical activity as an "outlet" for their energies (and sexual desires). Addams took these ideas and applied them to young women (albeit without the sexual undertone); she argued that girls must be free to act on their Progressive principles, or they would "dissipate their energies in so-called enjoyment" or become "buried beneath this mental accumulation."38 She also infused her message with elements of Christian messianism, describing the settlement house movement as a manifestation of "the impulse to share the lives of the poor, the desire to make social service, irrespective of propaganda, express the spirit of Christ."39 Many settlement house volunteers, including hundreds of black women, went on to serve as some of the country's first professional social workers. Women composed about half of all social workers by 1910, and 62% of the profession by 1920.40 Addams helped to create the modern social work profession and to bolster it as a respectable line of work for young women in an age where few such professions existed.