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Hunter, Robert

in: People

Hunter, (Wiles) Robert  (April 10, 1874 – May 15, 1942), Social Worker, Author and Socialist


Robert Hunter
Robert Hunter
Photo: Public Domain

Editor’s Note:  The career of Robert Hunter is a complicated journey through social work, social activism, research, field studies, politics, golf course design and academia.  Over the years he moved from being a prominent Progressive to a dedicated Socialist and then a right wing critic of President Roosevelt and the New Deal.  When he declared himself a socialist (1905), he was elected to the first executive board of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Later he was the Socialist candidate for the New York state assembly (1908), and he represented American socialism at the Third International in Stuttgart (1907). After moving to Noroton, Conn., he campaigned to be elected as the Socialist candidate for the governorship of Connecticut (1910).  Hunter became disillusioned with socialism and left the party because it had failed to prevent World War I. In 1918 he moved to California where he lectured on economics and English at the University of California, Berkley. In 1926 he wrote “Links,” a book on golf course design.  Hunter repudiated the New Deal and became an active member of the National Economic League where he published an anti-Deal pamphlet. In 1940, he published Revolution, in which he rejected Marxism and revolution and strongly asserted that American capitalism had essentially eliminated poverty.

There are no available biographies of  Robert Hunter. Included below is a brief description of Hunter’s early career as a social worker and researcher.  Following that is a copy of his “Preface” from the book “Poverty” he wrote in 1904 and  which remains one of the most significant contributions Hunter made to the history of American Social Welfare.

Early Life: Wiles Robert Hunter was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, the middle child of five children born over thirteen years to William Robert and Caroline (nee Fouts) Hunter.  His father was a successful carriage maker so Hunter was raised and lived comfortably in an upper middle class family environment.  Educated both in public schools and by private tutors in Terre Haute, Hunter graduated in 1896 with a B.A. degree from Indiana University.

Appalled by the misery of the economic depression of 1893, he decided to become a social worker.  His first employment became the organizing secretary of Chicago’s Board of Charities (1896–1902) and lived as a resident at Hull House (1899–1902), the settlement house founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Hunter was the founder and Superintendent of the Municipal Housing Lodge for Vagrants, and Director of Chicago’s first free children’s dental clinic. In 1901 he served as chair of the Investigating Committee for the City Homes Association. Hunter conducted a survey of working-class housing for the City Homes Association and in that capacity published his first book, Tenement Conditions in Chicago (1901), an example of settlement house research by residents, in which conditions in selected neighborhoods were meticulously examined.

A man of independent means, in 1902 Hunter was named head worker at the University Settlement on Rivington Street, in New York City’s Lower East Side.  In that capacity, he chaired a New York Child Labor commission and directed their successful campaign to enact child labor laws (1903).  Hunter also became involved in an anti-tuberculosis campaign.  In 1903, Hunter resigned from University Settlement and devoted himself fulltime to research and political action. From his efforts, Hunter published his most important book, Poverty (1904), the first general statistical survey of America’s poor.



Published by the Macmillan Company, New York, 1912.


The main objects of this volume are : To define poverty and to estimate its extent at the present time in the United States; to describe some of its evils, not only among the dependent and vicious classes, which constitute the social wreckage in the abysses of our cities, but also among the unskilled, underpaid, underfed, and poorly housed workers ; furthermore, to point out certain remedial actions which society may wisely undertake ; and, finally, to show that the evils of poverty are not barren, but procreative, and that the workers in poverty are, in spite of themselves, giving to the world a litter of miserables, whose degeneracy is so stubborn and fixed that reclamation is almost impossible, especially when the only process of reclamation must consist in trying to force the pauper, vagrant, and weakling back into that struggle with poverty which is all of the time defeating stronger and better natures than theirs. In order to fulfil these purposes, the first chapter deals with poverty in general, with our ignorance of its extent, with our lack of information, and with the several reasons for believing that, in fairly prosperous times, no less than ten million persons in the United States are underfed, underclothed, and poorly housed. The Pauper and Vagrant are dealt with in other chapters as types of those who are beaten and who are sunk into a satisfied dependence from which they can only rarely be reclaimed. But especial attention is directed to the larger mass from which the de pendent classes are mainly recruited. Although it comprises several million wage-workers, it is, strange to say, almost a forgotten class, confused on the one side with the vicious and dependent and on the other with the more highly paid workers. The chapters on The Sick, The Child, and The Immigrant deal with certain phases of this larger problem of poverty and with some of the reasons for its continuance amongst us.

It should be said that the book is not a scientific or exhaustive study, endeavoring to deal with all of the conditions, causes, and problems of poverty. Mr. Charles Booth in his study of London has approached most nearly to such a work, and it required several large volumes to print the results. It is unnecessary to say that this book is a much more modest undertaking. It is first of all a personal narrative, telling of things seen while living among the poorest of the working people and among the most degraded elements in several cities of this country and abroad. It makes public certain notes concerning the misery, the wretchedness, the sorrow, and the hopelessness of old neighbors, many of whom are friends and acquaintances.  It is not, however, the result of any definite investigation or of inquiries and notes made for the purpose of writing a book. Whatever knowledge of the question is manifested herein comes largely from my work in a variety of movements intended either to diminish the number of dependents or to ameliorate the conditions of poverty. The facts drawn from books and official publications are such as seemed to me necessary to a rounded statement of that portion of the problem of poverty with which I am most familiar, or to support the generalizations which are here and there made in the various chapters concerning tendencies, causes, and remedies. It is perhaps unnecessary to remark that mere observation cannot take the place of careful inquiry; and therefore wherever I could make use of material gained by the latter method, I have freely availed myself of it. Those who are looking to find in this book a thoroughgoing treatise on poverty will, for these several reasons, be disappointed. It has all the limitations of a book which, if not altogether personal, is at any rate based entirely upon facts gained by personal observation.

The limitations are many. I shall mention but two of those which exist in my description of conditions. The poor of the rural districts have hardly been mentioned, and the working woman and the mother are left almost entirely out of consideration. I have been content to pass over these important problems because I have been less observant of these phases of poverty than of other phases, and 1 have kept to my original determination not to write of conditions with which I am not personally familiar. Similar limitations may be observed in my dealing with causes and remedies. I have purposely ignored individual causes, and I have mentioned among remedial measures only those for which I have worked or those which have been in certain places and at certain times tried and found of value. The more far-reaching and radical reforms proposed by the socialist, single taxer, and individualist have not been examined here, and therefore not con demned or endorsed. In so far as possible conditions are described as seen ; causes which have been watched and studied are mentioned, and remedies which have appealed to me as of immediate importance have been urged. The book as a whole has one aim ; namely, to show the grievous need of certain social measures calculated to prevent the ruin and degradation of those working people who are on the verge of poverty. I am at a loss to under stand why well-known and generally recognized poverty-breeding conditions, which are both unjust and unnecessary, are tolerated for an instant among a humane, not to say a professedly Christian people.

I am happy to take advantage of this opportunity to express my sincere thanks to Professor Richard T. Ely, to Professor John R. Commons, and to my brother-in-law, Mr. J. G. Phelps Stokes, for many criticisms and suggestions. They were interested enough in the purpose of the book to take time from their many duties to read the entire manuscript. I am also indebted to Dr. William H. Max well, Superintendent of Schools in New York City, to Dr. Herman Biggs, General Medical Officer of the Board of Health of New York City, to Mr. Frank P. Sargent, Commissioner General of Immigration, to Dr. Edward T. Devine, General Secretary of the Charity Organization Society of New York City, to Mrs. Florence Kelley, Secretary of the National Consumers’ League, to Mr. James Forbes, the agent of the Mendicity Committee of the N. Y. C. O. S., and to Mr. English Walling for reading those chapters of the book which deal with problems in which they are practically interested specialists. Each of these friends has made criti cisms and suggestions which have been most helpful. Most of all I am indebted to my wife, who has patiently and painstakingly toiled through every page of the manuscript and proofs.

 Highland Farm,

Noroton, Conn.,

September 15, 1904.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.


The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Cambridge University Press (1995)

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, by Walter I. Trattner, Editor, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. (1986)

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2013). Hunter, (Wiles) Robert (April 10, 1874 – May 15, 1942), social worker, author and socialist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from