13. The “Social Wreckage” of Poverty on Cities from a Socialist: Robert Hunter
Poverty was, and is, perplexing. How is it that a small group of people get richer while a vast many people fall into economic despair? This conundrum challenged the men and women within the settlement house movement. Unlike charitable organizations that simply handed out food and clothing to the poor, settlement house workers wanted to understand the root causes of why some people were in a perpetual state of being poor. Robert Hunter was the father of poverty studies.
Born into a well-to-do family in 1874, Robert attended the University of Indiana and was critical of the free-market economy and its impact on the poor. In 1896, most people believed that the poor were simply lazy and had zero motivation. Newly arrived immigrants, the idea went, were simply too stupid to be motivated workers and save their money. In reality, factories paid such low wages that it was nearly impossible for people who worked 14 hour days to move into higher income brackets. Robert Hunter made it a priority to define the link between wealth and poverty.
Arriving in Chicago in 1896, Robert moved to Hull-House where he chaired the Investigating Committee for the City Homes Association as it conducted surveys of working-class housing. He wanted to know why people who were working 14 hour days still living in dilapidated housing with very little money for food? In 1902, Robert moved on to the University Settlement in New York City’s Lower East Side where he researched the impacts of child labor on children and families. From his research efforts in Chicago and New York, Hunter published Poverty in 1904. He stated that one of his main objectives of the book was to “define poverty” and its “social wreckage” on cities, “the unskilled, underpaid, underfed, and poorly housed workers.”
For the first time a book had outlined the link between wages and poverty. He decried that being poor was criminalized while factory owners were free to pay whatever wage they wanted in the name of a free-market economy. Yet, despite the type of starvation, drunkenness, abuse, and vagrancy that the working poor endured, in his observations, they still seemed to be “more contented than any other class” that he knew. Poverty is still used as a seminal work in the study of sociology and much of Hunters findings till hold true today, 114 years later.