Robert Hunter was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1874. After graduating from Indiana University he moved to Chicago and in 1896 was appointed organizing secretary of the city's Board of Charities. His work brought him into contact with Jane Addams and he became a resident of Hull House where she joined other social reformers such as Ellen Gates Starr, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton and Sophonisba Breckinridge at the settlement.
Hunter returned to Chicago and served as chairman of the City Homes Association. He published Tenement Conditions in Chicago (1901) and the following year moved to New York where he became head of the University Settlement House. In 1903 Hunter married Caroline Stokes, the sister of the wealthy industrialist, J. G. Phelps Stokes (1872-1960).
In 1904 Hunter published his book Poverty. Based largely on his experiences in Chicago and New York, Hunter, who considered himself to be a sociologist, attempted: (i) "to define and measure poverty"; (ii) "to describe some of its evils"; (iii) "to point out certain remedial actions"; and (iv) "to show that the evils of poverty are procreative". Hunter argued in his book that there were over 10 million people living in poverty in America.
Hunter had his work published in a wide-variety of newspapers and journals. His books included Socialist at Work (1908), Violence and the Labor Movement (1914), Labor in Politics (1915), Why We Fail as Christians (1919), Inflation and Revolution (1934) and Revolution: Why, How, When?(1940). Robert Hunter died in Santa Barbara on 15th May, 1942.
On cold, rainy mornings, at the dusk of dawn, I have been awakened, two hours before my rising time, by the monotonous clatter of hobnailed boots on the plank sidewalks, as the procession to the factory passed under my window. Heavy, brooding men, tired, anxious women, thinly dressed, unkempt little girls, and frail, joyless little lads passed along, half awake, not one uttering a word as they hurried to the great factory. From all directions thousands were entering the various gates - children of every nation of Europe.
These are the terrible alternatives which the working people in poverty accept in preference to pauperism, and yet it is a curious fact, which psychology alone explains, that the very men who will suffer almost anything rather than become paupers are often the very ones who never care to be anything else when once they have become dependent upon alms. When a family once become dependent, the mental agony which they formerly had disappears. Paupers are not, as a rule, unhappy. They are not ashamed; they are not keen to become independent; they are not bitter or discontented. They have passed over the line which separates poverty from pauperism.
This distinction between the poor and paupers may be seen everywhere. There are in all large cities in America and abroad, streets and courts and alleys where a class of people live who have lost all self-respect and ambition, who rarely, if ever, work, who are aimless and drifting, who like drink, who have no thought for their children, and who live more or less contentedly on rubbish and alms. Such districts are certain portions of Whitechapel and Spitalsfield, etc., in London, Kitrof Rynock in Moscow, parts of Armour Avenue in Chicago, Rat Hollow in Cincinnati, and parts of Cherry Hill and the Minettas in New York City, and so on in all cities everywhere. The lowest level of humanity is reached in these districts. In our American cities Negroes, Whites, Chinese, Mexicans, Half-breeds, Americans, Irish, and others are indiscriminately housed together in the same tenements and even in the same rooms. The blind, the crippled, the consumptive, the aged, - the ragged ends of life; the babies, the children, the halt-starved, underclad beginnings in life, all huddled together, waiting, drifting. This is pauperism. There is no mental agony here; they do not work sore; there is no dread; they live miserably, but they do not care.
In the same cities and, indeed, everywhere, there are great districts of people who are up before dawn, who wash, dress, and eat breakfast, kiss wives and children, and hurry away to work or to seek work. The world rests upon their shoulders; it moves by their muscle; everything would stop if, for any reason, they should decide not to go into the fields and factories and mines. But the world is so organized that they gain enough to live upon only when they work; should they cease, they are in destitution and hunger. The more fortunate of the laborers are but a few weeks from actual distress when the machines are stopped. Upon the unskilled masses want is constantly pressing. As soon as employment ceases, suffering stares them in the face. They are the actual producers of wealth, who have no home nor any bit of soil which they may call their own. They are the millions who possess no tools and can work only by permission
of another. In the main, they live miserably, they know not why. They work sore, yet gain nothing. They know the meaning of hunger and the dread of want. They love their wives and children. They try to retain their self-respect. They have some ambition. They give to neighbors in need, yet they are themselves the actual children of poverty.
There are probably in fairly prosperous years no less than 10,000,000 persons in poverty; that is to say, underfed, underclothed, and poorly housed. Of these about 4,000,000 persons are public paupers. Over 2,000,000 working men are unemployed from four to six months in the year. About 500,000 male immigrants arrive yearly and seek work in the very districts where unemployment is greatest. Nearly half of the families in the country are propertyless. Over 1,700,000 little children are forced become wage-earners when they should still be in school. Probably no less than 1,000,000 workers are injured or killed each year while doing their work, and about 10,000,000 of the persons now living will, if the present ratio is kept up, die of preventable disease, tuberculosis.
In this community, the saddest in which I have ever lived, fully fifty thousand men, women, and children were all the time either in poverty or on the verge of poverty. It would not be possible to describe how they worked and starved and ached to rise out of it. They broke their health down; the men acquired in this particular trade a painful and disabling rheumatism, and consumption was very common. The girls and boys followed in the paths of their parents. The wages were so low that the men alone often cold not support their families, and mothers with babies toiled in order to add to the income. They give up all thought of joyful living, probably in the hope that by tremendous exertion they could overcome their poverty; but they gained while at work only enough to keep their bodies alive.