(1867 - 1922)
Social worker Minnie Low has been called "the Jane
Addams of the Jews." Comparison with the founder
of Chicagos renowned Hull House perhaps the
best-known settlement house serving immigrants in early
20th-century America while flattering to Low, disguises
the difference between the two women.
Unlike the more privileged Addams,
Low was born in New York to poor immigrant Jewish parents
who moved to Chicago when Minnie was ten years old.
Addams attended college and medical school and could
afford to serve unpaid in her various leadership roles.
By contrast, because of illness, Low dropped out of
public high school and never completed her formal education.
She remained single and had to support herself through
a paid career in social work. Addamss involvement
with the poor, while certainly admirable, stemmed from
a patrician sense of noblesse oblige and a Christian
sense that her personal salvation lay in the doing of
good deeds. Low was motivated by a sense of solidarity
with her fellow Jews, particularly those who emigrated
from Russia. Both women were pioneers in American social
work, but it is Lows ideas, and not Addams,
that currently dominate social welfare thinking.
Born in 1867, Minnie Lows calling
to Jewish social service initially came in 1893, in
the depths of a great national economic depression.
That year, Low helped found the Maxwell Street Settlement
House in the heart of Chicagos immigrant Jewish
ghetto. Low and Addams became friends at that time;
in fact, the meetings that led to the establishment
of the Maxwell Street Settlement were held at Hull House.
The dominant mode of settlement house
work established by Jane Addams focused mainly on giving
the immigrants recreational, cultural and social opportunities
exposure to music, art, crafts and English language
rather than practical skills in the marketplace.
By contrast, Low believed that charity should be less
cultural and more "scientific." She wanted
philanthropy to foster the eventual economic independence
and moral character of its recipients. To borrow a popular
metaphor, rather than feeding the poor a fish dinner,
Lows scientifically-targeted philanthropy tried
to provide them with fishing rods and fishing lessons
so they could learn to feed themselves.
Low put her ideas to work in 1897,
when the recently formed National Council of Jewish
Women appointed her director of its Seventh Ward Bureau
in Chicago, later renamed the Bureau of Personal Service.
The bureaus mission was to help the citys
Jewish immigrants secure housing, medical care, legal
assistance and credit. Low instructed the bureaus
employees not simply to dispense alms to their clients,
but to help them take responsibility for finding their
own jobs. She encouraged middle-class women to become
"friendly visitors" in the homes of the poor
and provide them with mentoring and encouragement rather
than handouts. Her agency created a workroom that employed
Jewish immigrants and paid them in coal and secondhand
shoes and clothing.
Low believed strongly in the American
Jewish communal practice of providing interest-free
loans, rather than charity, to those in need. In 1897,
Low tested her beliefs by creating the Womans
Loan Association. Starting with a treasury of $87, by
1918 the organization distributed $33,000 per year in
interest-free loans, primarily to Jewish immigrants
who used them to establish or sustain small businesses.
Historian Shelly Tenenbaum quotes an essay Low wrote
Loan a small amount to a man struggling for existence
. . . [give] him some time to repay the loan in installments
[and he will do so] without flinching, and without
shirking his responsibility. . . What greater proof
do we require that undaunted courage, ambition, honor
and manliness are virtues of the poor?
Low made several innovative contributions
to the Chicago social welfare system. With Judge Julian
Mack, Jane Addams and others, she helped organize the
Juvenile Court of Chicago (1899), the first separate
juvenile justice system in America. She also established
the Juvenile Protective Association, an organization
devoted to delinquency prevention. Low was active in
Chicagos Central Bureau of Jewish Charities, the
Home for Jewish Friendless and the Jewish Finding Home
Society, an adoption bureau for children without families.
Low was also active in attempts to suppress the white
slave trade, a serious threat to the lives of poor Jewish
girls. In 1914, recognizing her tireless efforts, her
colleagues elected her president of the National Conference
of Jewish Charities. She used the position to advocate
for the improved status of women social workers in Jewish
Lows name is little remembered
today, but her belief that Jewish charity should provide
the poor with the tools to work rather than simply encouraging
their dependency on handouts makes her an intellectual
forerunner of todays leading welfare reform theorists.
Her notion of scientific tzedakah foreshadows the current
emphasis on moving recipients off welfare rolls and
onto payrolls. Minnie Low was a thinker well ahead of
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