My staff member knocks tentatively on my half open office door, and I invite her in. I notice immediately the wide eyes and how she is twisting a strand of long brown hair around her finger.
“Is it true?” She asks.
“Will I lose my job? What about my clients? Sergio can’t go without his medication, and Nancy just started with the behavioral aide it took us four months to line up. What would happen to them?”
I settle back in my chair. I’ve had this conversation before. Despite my best efforts to maintain an environment of safety for both my clients and my staff, rumors once again emerged. News stories of county and state budget cuts make their way into lunchtime conversations. Fears arise, and conversations like the one I am about to have must take place.
I have been fortunate. My organization has not had to shut down programs, pulling through each year by reducing costs and managing staff reductions through attrition rather than lay offs. We are the exception rather than the rule. Even established, respected institutions are having to make hard economic choices regarding which services to continue to offer and which to abandon to keep their doors open, as the recent closing and subsequent filing for bankruptcy of the Hull House Association in Chicago illustrates.
Founded by Jane Addams in 1889, Hull House provided social services to residents of Chicago for 122 years. In recent years, the agency focused services in the areas of foster care, domestic violence, and job training. At the time of closure, it employed more than 300 workers, and served 60,000+ clients in 50 programs at 40 sites throughout Chicago (Jane Addams Hull House Association, n. d.).
While rumors about mismanagement of funds began to circulate and fingers began to point regarding the agency’s over-reliance on government funds, there is another lesson to be learned from this tragedy. The social work profession has forgotten about our role in advocating for social justice at the policy level.
It has been reported that 85% of Hull House funding came from various federal, state, and local grants and contracts, whereas only 10% came from unrestricted private donations. As a result, when government money dried up, the agency’s revenues decreased by almost half, from a high of $40 million in the 1990s to $23 million (Wisniewski, 2012). The management of Hull House is being criticized for not diversifying its funding streams more effectively, and for not putting more emphasis on private donations.
But is reliance on unrestricted private funds and foundation grants any more reliable in tough economic times? Would Hull House have realistically been able to raise an additional $17 million to cover existing programs? Perhaps, but individuals and foundations are also struggling with limited funds. What is available is being stretched over the increased need for services that a poor economy stimulates, resulting in difficult dilemmas about who should receive services. When economic times become difficult and government money seems to be unavailable, it is easy to throw up our hands and blame the now struggling nonprofit for not seeing that the good times would end. Perhaps an additional approach would be to put pressure on local, state, and federal governments to increase commitment to social welfare programs in times of economic challenge.
When Jane Addams began her work at Hull House, she was an active fundraiser for her organization. However, she also involved herself heavily in the areas of political and social reform. She sat on the Chicago Board of Education, was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also campaigned heavily for Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party, contributing to the eventual passage of the Social Security Act, the foundation for many of our government welfare programs today (“Women in History,” n. d.).
Jane Addams understood the vital role that government funding needed to play in the provision of social services and was committed to engaging in policy advocacy work toward this end. It has been the habit of the social work field to shy away from macro practice in times of political conservatism and to focus heavily on micro work, waiting passively for the political and economic times to change before becoming involved in policy work once again. However, it is exactly in times of greatest economic and political challenge that social workers need to grab the public attention and work to focus our political systems on the needs of our most disadvantaged citizens.
Through involvement in political campaigns, social workers can help insure that progressive candidates who share our values of social justice and equality are voted into office. We can use the many easily accessible media outlets available today to educate the public about how the provision and funding of quality social services positively affects all of society. We can become aware of the policies that are being proposed in Congress every day that affect our clients both positively and negatively, and work to ensure the passage of those that support our clients’ best interests, including those that appropriate funds to important social issues.
So, perhaps the greatest lesson from the closure of Hull House is that the field of social work needs to recommit itself to macro policy work. Yes, private money and the diversification of funding will always play a vital role in the sustainability of social service agencies, as will the sophisticated and skillful management of boards of directors and nonprofit administrators. However, without government commitment to adequate and timely payments to nonprofits, long-term sustainability will be difficult to achieve for many organizations. It is time to recommit to the work that Jane Addams so clearly understood—that social work is not just about meeting individual client needs; it is also about creating changes within systems that will have a radical impact on the quantity and quality of services our clients receive.
Jane Addams Hull House Association. Who we serve. Retrieved from http://hullhouse.org/aboutus/whoweserve.html.
Wisniewski, M. (2012, January 19). Chicago Hull House closing for lack of funds. Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/19/us-hullhouse-closing-idUSTRE80I2IQ20120119.
Women in history. Jane Addams biography. Retrieved from http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/adda-jan.htm.
Laura Gale, LCSW, is an adjunct lecturer for the University of Southern California School of Social Work Virtual Academic Center. She has 20 years of experience in the areas of nonprofit administration, clinical supervision, and social welfare policy.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2012, Vol. 19, No. 2. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher/editor for permission to reprint/reproduce.