Al "Scarface" Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster who ran American metropolitan streets during the 1920s and 1930s, is rarely associated with acts of charity or altruism. Despite the fact that the man who essentially developed the Italian-American mobster persona was applauded by many during the Prohibition era for his successful bootlegging of fine (and not so fine) spirits, he was also closely associated with violent crime rings, murderous rampages, and prostitution. As a result, Al Capone's public image needed a major overhaul if he wanted to stay in the good graces of Chicagoans – enter Al Capone's soup kitchen.
In response to the devastating impact that the Great Depression was having on poor Americans, Capone stepped up to the plate and rejuvenated the classic model of the soup kitchen for a more modern customer – out-of-work Americans. Honing in on a need that was not being filled by the US government, he opened the Capone Free Soup Kitchen in downtown Chicago.
Maybe he wasn't just the heartless mobster that his enemies made him out to be.
Though Capone was adored by those who benefited from his entrepreneurial efforts, as well as by Italian-Americans who saw him as an advocate for their community, many people still viewed him as a man motivated by cruel self interest, which usually came at the expense of others.
Things only got worse for Capone after the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre occurred in Chicago on February 14, 1929 – and, though he was never officially connected to the murders, it was popular knowledge that he was in some way involved. As a result, Capone began to look for ways to earn back the trust of the communities he worked in, and the economic collapse of the Great Depression gave him plenty of opportunities.
The Great Depression – caused by the stock market crash in October of 1929 – was one of the worst global economic crises in history. With over four million people unemployed by 1930 alone, it caused a ripple effect of poverty and debt across the US. And, as more people fell victim to this dire economic situation, it became obvious that the biggest struggle they faced on a daily basis was obtaining food for themselves and their families.
Capone, with all of his socio-economic savvy, quickly saw this need and acted. By 1931, he had opened the Capone Free Soup Kitchen in downtown Chicago on the corner of 9th and State Street, and the impact was overwhelming. By December, the Chicago Tribune ran an article noting that the soup kitchen was churning out over 120,000 meals a day to unemployed and homeless individuals, and Capone even managed to create jobs by employing people to work at the kitchen.
It became common to hear people praise Capone's efforts by saying that "he was doing more for the poor than the entire US government."
When the Great Depression swept across the nation, there were very few – if any – beneficial social programs set in place by the US government to provide support to the sick, elderly, impoverished, or unemployed. As a result, the government was ill equipped to handle the complex and growing needs of its citizens.
With the success of Capone's soup kitchen, and others like it, the public began to place more pressure on the government, criticizing their lack of social support programs. The obvious irony of the fact that a mobster was doing more for the people of Chicago than Chicago was doing for its own people spawned even greater disdain toward the government.
In a desperate attempt to cull the growing devastation connected to the economic downfall of the US, President Roosevelt passed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, which included benefit opportunities for disability and medical coverage, social security in retirement, as well as unemployment insurance. Whether or not the US government took a page out of Capone's book in hopes of bettering their public image, Capone certainly paved the way for the social security benefits many American's enjoy today.