The Size of Others' Burdens
Barack Obama, Jane Addams, and the Politics of Helping Others
Erik Schneiderhan



An American’s Dilemma

We are learning that a standard of social ethics is not attained by travelling a sequestered byway, but by mixing on the thronged and common road where all must turn out for one another, and at least see the size of one another’s burdens.

Jane Addams

There’s always been a tension in this country between the desire for liberty and self-reliance and individualism, and the desire for community and neighborliness and a sense of common purpose.

What I am constantly trying to do is balance a hard head with a big heart.

Barack Obama

In the depths of Chicago winter, a young community organizer sat listening to appeal after appeal for help from people who had lost their jobs. It was the same story every time: Good-paying jobs were few and far between, and the government provided little support for those who were not working. In a climate of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and individual responsibility, there were few places to turn for help. Community organizations in Chicago tried to fill the gaps, but funding was tight, there were not enough resources to help everyone, and the economy showed no signs of improving. Each person appealing to the organizer was looking for the same thing: a way out of his or her struggles. But the organizer had very little to offer beyond the motto “a helping hand, not a handout.”

One plea was particularly hard. The organizer knew the man standing there, hat in hand. They lived in the same neighborhood, and the supplicant, who had been fairly successful in shipping until he was laid off, did not know what to do or where to turn. The organizer’s instructions were clear—no handouts until all other options had been exhausted. Had the man looked for work elsewhere? Yes. Well, the organizer did know of temporary work on one of the city’s public works projects. The man protested: He had been working a desk job and would not survive hard physical labor outside in the dead of winter. The organizer was torn but remained firm, and the man walked away with details for contacting the project supervisor. The next day the former shipping clerk grabbed a shovel and joined the public works crew, excavating a drainage canal. He worked for two days in the winter cold before he contracted pneumonia. A week later, the man was dead.1

This book is, in part, about the community organizer in this story—one of America’s greatest figures—whose list of accomplishments should sound familiar: Chicago activist, University of Chicago lecturer, gifted orator, politician and elected official, crusader against discrimination, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and author of one of the most-read autobiographies in America today. Why didn’t this story come up during the 2008 or 2012 presidential elections? Because it happened in 1893, and the Chicago community organizer is Jane Addams.

Addams is best known for founding Hull-House, the celebrated American “settlement house” that served as the incubator for many ideas that would become the foundation of modern social work. How we help people in the United States today is in large part due to Addams’s efforts and thinking in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In simple terms, the settlement was a building, situated in a poor neighborhood, which served as a center for helping people. But it was more than just a physical space. Addams summed up what she viewed as the overall logic of the settlement: “It aims, in a measure, to develop whatever of social life its neighborhood may afford, to focus and give form to that life, to bring to bear upon it the results of cultivation and training.” Young men and women, called “residents,” provided services in the neighborhood, serving as visiting nurses, educators, childcare providers, and advocates. Also, neighbors used the resources of the settlement house, and it was a research center; residents gathered data on social problems with the goal of bringing about social change. Many of the reforms that Hull-House and other settlement houses initiated were geared toward improving the lives of working-class immigrants who shouldered the bulk of the burden of capitalism’s explosion.2

Robert Hunter—a sociologist, author, charity organizer, and contemporary of Addams—believed that settlement residents were wired differently. They had, he said, different “habits of their minds,” and the “work of their lives is incited by entirely different stimuli,” like travel, deep introspection, or the influence of strong mentors. Through the settlement movement, Addams and other American women would alter the trajectories available to them and create new paths forward, satisfying their desire for individual growth and their aspiration to help others, and earning them the moniker “Spearheads for Reform.”3

Neighborhood Guild, the first U.S. settlement house, was established in 1886 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Including Addams’s Hull-House, founded in 1889, only four settlements were founded in America before 1890. By 1900 there were approximately a hundred in operation, and by 1910 there were about four hundred. Chicago was home to sixteen at its peak, most notably Hull-House and Graham Taylor’s Chicago Commons.

The American settlement movement also had a strong religious impetus but was not affiliated with any particular faith. The settlement was a church of sorts, allowing residents to worship God through acts in the real world. However, such general descriptions must be used cautiously, as settlement houses were not all the same. Similarly, it would be easy to romanticize the settlement movement and characterize it with more uniformity than it actually possessed; some operated more as religious convents, particularly in smaller cities, while others were closer to the Hull-House model, pursuing social morality in the spirit of the Gospels and of the emerging and distinctly American philosophy of pragmatism.4 There are still settlement houses in operation today. While they do not have the coherence of a social movement, they are in some places still important outlets for our efforts to help in the community. They serve as lighthouses that draw people in need to safety and support.

The struggle between promoting individual responsibility and helping others in the community was as pressing in Addams’s time as it is today. Resources were equally scarce. For over a hundred years, Americans like Addams have worked to balance the requirements of these competing ideals. Many citizens, then and now, have wondered how to preserve their livelihood, provide for their families, and validate their own hard work, while also addressing the urge—even the moral imperative—to help people less fortunate. For some, like Addams, the answer to this dilemma lies in getting involved in the community and even politics.5 Indeed, Addams went on to successfully work front stage and behind the scenes in municipal, state, federal, and international politics. But becoming political often requires revisions and compromise in order to get things done. And, certain paths are not always open to particular categories of people in certain historical contexts. Biographies rooted in race, gender, and class (to name but a few) interact with the times to open certain ways and close down others.

This was the case for Addams in the late nineteenth century, just as it was for Barack Obama in the late twentieth century. The parallels between their lives are remarkable. They both moved over and against the limits placed on them by society because of their particular identities. They both began their careers as community organizers and activists in Chicago. Addams settled in the Nineteenth Ward and founded Hull-House, while Obama worked on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project. Both became frustrated with the inability to make change outside the political system, got involved in politics, and ran for and won public office. And, as they became political, both Addams and Obama ended up revising their earlier ideals and moving away from their earlier creative work so that they might effect change on a larger scale.6

Addams had founded Hull-House as an alternative to the dominant, hard-nosed approach of existing charities. But as she became political, she ended up working closely with these existing groups, moving away from her own more experimental and neighborhood-based roots. She created ties to government officials and Chicago elites, and with these ties came reciprocal demands. They scratched her back, and she had to scratch theirs in turn. She had to be sensitive to and cooperative with one-time adversaries, lest she lose her hard-earned support. At the same time, she felt the pull of the changing times, as women struggled to find their own political voices, independent of men. And, Addams needed to tend to the needs of her family and her own poor health. Not to mention that she had individual yearnings—to read, travel, and enjoy the company of her friends.

For his part, Obama was first elected to public office as an Illinois state senator in 1996. His compromises are better known. In particular, his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004 and his 2008 presidential campaign were full of promises; those who elected Obama did so because they had the hope and craved the change his campaign trumpeted. But quickly, the demands of working with Congress, appeasing donors, and navigating increasingly tumultuous economic waters left many supporters feeling Obama had moved away from—even abandoned—his goals and principles. This showed at times in his successful reelection effort in 2012. But the revisions he made prior to running for office are equally important in understanding his life’s trajectory. Obama worked hard to provide South Side Chicagoans with a voice in the city. But, like Addams, as he worked closely with city officials and elites, he gradually moved away from his more radical and experimental efforts. He was convinced he could not be effective without further education, so he went back to school, then returned to Chicago. All the while, Obama struggled to find his bearings; as a man of mixed racial heritage, the way forward in the post-Civil Rights era was not readily apparent. He had to make his own way.

The shared successes and struggles of Addams and Obama are the subject of this book, but this is not a book just about them. Their stories are instruments to help answer questions about American social life: How do Americans act in the face of competing social pressures when trying to help others in their communities? What happens when Americans become political and partner with elites as part of their efforts to move forward? The conflicting social demands of individualism and community assistance comprise a challenge that many face—it’s the American’s Dilemma. Well-meaning people are torn, akin to Goethe’s Faust who bemoaned having two souls beating in one breast. Whether the president of the United States, a registered nurse, or a university student, at some point most Americans wonder how to help others while still working toward the American Dream, how to lend a helping hand and still be a bootstrapping success. We are asked by society to be good workers, to be good consumers and “buy American,” to be healthy, to be good parents, and to be good friends. We also have our own drives, from wanderlust to sitting down on the couch to spend an hour with a good book. Obama and Addams, like ordinary Americans, felt the pull of all these competing urges.

Americans have a fierce spirit of individualism dating back to the nation’s founding. In public discourse and in the home, most Americans hold dear the notion that (for better or worse) each should be left to sink or swim. The United States was built on the idea of classical liberalism, which emphasizes individualism and freedom. The idea of doing it yourself, whatever that may be in practice, is reinforced from every direction by social institutions, including the media, schools, and workplaces. Still, Americans also like to help people. In America’s national culture, there are certain norms that shape social behavior. Most world religions encourage the helping of others in one way or another, and the idea of doing good works is tied to individual transcendence. The engine of faith has driven much of community helping in America. In fact, we will see that both Addams and Obama were influenced by religion. It is also clear that the idea of lending a helping hand is part of the myth and legend of the nation’s founding. Whether the story is of Native Americans helping pilgrims to survive the cold New England winters or of neighbors helping neighbors in the wake of a tornado in Oklahoma, Americans believe that, in a pinch, they will help their neighbors and their neighbors will help them. Sometimes it is hard to adjudicate between the competing spirits of individualism and community. They are, at times, incommensurable.

We are influenced in our decisions about how to be a social citizen by what our parents did—maybe they provided money or time to help people in their community, on their own or through a local church. Or maybe the parents did little community work—they were working too much or didn’t think it was their responsibility. Friends and mentors will have an influence, too. “Make a difference! Get involved!” All this exposure to new ideas can generate excitement, leaving one feeling as if one can do anything with the right attitude. This spirit is captured by the Margaret Mead quote that pops up in greeting cards and on inspirational posters: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Still, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the problems of the world. They can leave a person feeling small and ineffective, confused about where to start and fatalistic about what an individual person can actually do. The problems are just so monumental! Admiring and emulating Margaret Mead are different things when there is a paycheck to earn, rent to be paid, or diapers to be changed.

All of this equivocating is part of the American’s Dilemma. It has been with us since our nation’s founding, and, as a society, we have had plenty of time to think about the answers. Often, though, Americans have let such uncomfortable ideas go quietly ignored. The idea of America as a place of incommensurable dilemmas is not new. We are put in difficult positions by competing, but core, American values: “Americans help each other” and “I am responsible for my own success.” The choices we make for moving forward when these values conflict define us as individuals and contribute to our moral development, both individually and socially. What we do is important not just for our own lives, but also for our community values. The most promising social “place” to experiment with ways to accommodate our conflicting values is in relations with others in our neighborhoods.7

We all deserve to receive help in times of need, and we may be in a position to help someone else in another moment. Maybe we do it through an organization or on our own. But this help is about on-the-ground, face-to-face relations. It is a back-and-forth process with no end. In a sense, we are building roads that we travel together, and we are acknowledging that there is no destination but a better society. Perhaps this sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky.8 But Addams and Obama show us that it is possible. They demonstrate that sometimes we get stuck and cannot move forward in the direction we want to go. Limitations made each choose a different path, entering into politics. Rather than continue their initial community work, Addams and Obama revised and scaled up their efforts. Surely, they also left something behind.

This book tries to bring together some of the best thinking on how we might conceive of and practice helping in our own communities. It might help readers move forward from ambivalence, equipping each to solve his or her own American’s Dilemma. And from the ideas in this book, we can think through and critically examine the stories of Jane Addams and Barack Obama in their communities. Facing the same questions most Americans face, Addams and Obama made choices about involvement with their communities and politics; those choices had consequences. Studying the roads each traveled—their wrong turns, the roadblocks they faced, and the places they stopped in their respective journeys—holds instructive potential. If we want to solve the social problems facing our communities, it is helpful to understand the pitfalls that might lie ahead. The cases of Addams and Obama help us understand how our dilemmas come to be, and how we might work through them.

While Addams and Obama were both inspirational activists who brought about real change, they faced different challenges. Addams could not turn to government and the welfare state for support, as there were virtually no public funds available for the kind of work she did at Hull-House. So, she used her own money and raised more from other wealthy individuals. Although the lack of state resources was problematic, it also meant freedom from state oversight—essentially, Addams could do whatever she wanted, within reason. Obama, on the other hand, worked in a period of relatively high state support for public welfare provision, and that was accompanied by significant regulation and a need for political maneuvering. Held up together, the cases show the value of combining today’s state resources with the innovation and flexibility of Addams’s time. The stories show the value of looking to the past to understand the present.

A caveat: This book may be many things, but there are many it is not. For instance, though I will talk about the compromises Addams and Obama had to make as they waded into politics, this book is not an indictment of either. Nor is it meant to be yet another adoring biographical treatment of how each dramatically changed the landscape of American society. It is not about citizenship and the welfare state or whether the United States is “going in the wrong direction,” is politically divided, or requires balance. It does not indict the Right or valorize the Left. Rather, this book is a social diagnosis based on historical evidence. This evidence comes from data collected during my own archival research and gleaned from a treasure trove of secondary sources. My hope is that this evidence will provide a platform for helping us better understand the United States of America and offer ideas for how to move forward and help others when faced with our own moments of dilemma.

It is probably obvious that there is a strong normative element to this text. In it, I take the position that good social science is not just about adding to existing literature but also about “making a difference” in our world. American philosopher William James talked about the “cash-value” of ideas for society, asking “What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?” Ideas that do not impact how we live our lives are of little consequence. One might consider the pages to come a search for what Richard Rorty, another American philosopher, terms “a hint of how our lives might be changed.” Not everyone can run for president or win a Nobel Prize. But we can help others without sacrificing their dignity or our principles. Great thinkers of the past and present will give us the ideas and motivation; Addams and Obama will show us how. The hope is that this book will inspire readers to address their own American’s Dilemma by connecting to community.9


1. Addams (1961, 108–109).

2. Addams (1961, 83); Davis (1984).

3. Hunter (1902, 81–82); Davis (1984).

4. Scholars have exhaustively studied the emergence of the settlement house in the United States (see Carson 1990, Crocker 1992, Davis 1984, and Trattner 1999).

5. What do I mean by politics? Weber (1946, 77–79) is helpful here, pointing us to activities tied to the state and the relative distribution of power. Marx (especially writings in Tucker 1978, 70–93, 469–500) is also helpful, asking us to consider that politics is a reflection of class struggle. As capitalists control the system of production, they also become the dominant political group in society. Encouraged by Weber and Marx, then, we can think of politics as the struggle over the power to get things done (typically through state resources) in a context in which capitalist elites have a significant amount of control. This effort, following Weber, requires leadership. Since ambivalence implies powerlessness (an uncertainty as to what to do and how to do it), entering into the political sphere offers the chance to accrue power and break the logjam. But this power typically comes through some sort of negotiated understanding with capitalist elites. Joining the political fray can be quite rough and tumble; it can require compromise and even result in dirty hands (calling to mind Sartre’s (1985) Les Main Sales). Here we might draw on Michel Foucault’s (1978, 93) understanding of politics as “war by other means,” which ties to Carl Schmitt’s (1996, 26) notion of politics as an exercise in confronting distinctions in society “between friend and foe.” We get a sense of the political as a battleground, where you must quickly identify who your friends are and consider all others potential enemies. The political battle is fought through confrontation and compromise. In practical terms, I will focus primarily on electoral politics, considering how becoming political impacted the efforts of Addams and Obama to help others. But I will also consider the broader struggles each faced in scaling up their efforts and effecting change while balancing the need to appease capitalist elites.

6. There are a number of terms one might use to describe the decisions that emerge out of moments of dilemma faced by Addams and Obama—times when they seem to have deviated from expressed principles. One might talk of cooperation, or compromise, or even selling-out. I prefer the less judgmental descriptor of their actions as “revisions.” This takes us to the pragmatist ideas presented in the Appendix. We are never finished with the process of gaining social intelligence through trying different ways to move forward. True, we don’t always see the consequences of our actions. And some decisions matter more than others. In the case of Addams and Obama, their increasing connections to Chicago elites and electoral politics impacted their work in helping others. They were able to do more of some things but had to leave other things behind.

7. Hewitt (1989, 13) considers individualism as “one pole of an axis of cultural variation” with the other pole loosely considered “communitarian” in terms of orientation. Stone (2008) sees the struggle in different terms, more as one internal to the “good Samaritan” who has to decide whether she should help or leave it to the government. Dionne (2012) presents the division in a political context, talking of our “divided political heart.” The common denominator across these works is the idea of being pulled in different directions by our society’s demands.

8. I use this turn of phrase deliberately. It is from a song written by Joe Hill in 1911. The song is a parody of the Salvation Army, which in Hill’s mind was more focused on salvation than on helping. This song was likely sung in Chicago during Addams’s time, with the following chorus:

You will eat, bye and bye,

In that glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

See for more information on the song.

9. James (1981, 26); Rorty (1982, 175).