Skip to main content

Brawley chronicles life and work of Robert Hunter


August 16, 2007

Edward Allan Brawley, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Arizona State University, has written “Speaking Out for America’s Poor: A Millionaire Socialist in the Progressive Era – The Life and Work of Robert Hunter,” the first full-length account of the turn-of-the-19th-century social reformer.

Recognized as a pioneer in the area of social work – mentored by Jane Addams and a contemporary of Sinclair Lewis and Lincoln Steffens – Hunter was a reformer who believed that poverty was preventable by appropriate government action. His proposals helped launch local and state programs and were a precursor to much of the social legislation enacted under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Hunter was a truly inspirational person,” said Brawley, who taught social policy at ASU’s West campus from 1992 through 2003 with periodic interruptions for different administrative assignments. “He was motivated by strongly held but not sanctimonious or judgmental religious principles, and he was tireless in his pursuit of solutions to the most pressing social problems of his time.”

A social worker from Indiana, Hunter created headlines in 1903 when he married New York socialite Caroline Phelps Stokes (her father, Anson, was a prominent financier and philanthropist who donated the trophy known as the America’s Cup that is still awarded to the winner of the prestigious international yachting competition) and moved out of a Manhattan mansion to live in the slum district of Minetta Lane on the city’s Lower West Side in order to serve the poor. In his landmark book, “Poverty,” published in 1904, Hunter estimated that between 10 and 20 million Americans were in dire straits, despite the relative prosperity of what came to be called the Gilded Age.

Despite the major impact that Hunter’s work had in forcing needed social reforms in the Progressive Era, his contributions have been, for the most part, overlooked or forgotten.

“Many wealthy people of the time responded to the needs of the poor among them by giving hand-outs of food, fuel, clothing or money,” noted Brawley. “Others who had the means and motivation established philanthropic organizations or foundations, some of which still exist today. A few, including Hunter, Addams and others, chose to live among the poor and fight for the social changes they believed were needed if poverty was to be prevented or reduced.”

As much as Brawley’s “Speaking Out” is a biographical sketch of Hunter, it is also a look into the history of social reform and social change, utilizing biography to examine social and intellectual history.

“Brawley does what he has consistently done in his scholarly works – analyze social change through an unconventional lens,” wrote Rufus Sylvester Lynch, dean of the Whitney M. Young, Jr., School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University in a review of the book. “His biography of Hunter throws penetrating new light on early social reform efforts in America.”

Brawley, who has authored six books on social policy, including “Social Care at the Front Line” and “Human Services and the Media,” says much of what he taught in his classes at Temple, Penn State University and ASU can be traced to lessons learned from Hunter.

“One of the Hunter lessons that has always resonated with my students is about how he had worked for a couple of years as a social worker in the worst slums of Chicago,” remembered Brawley, who earned his Ph.D in social work from the University of Pennsylvania. “He eventually realized that his case-by-case approach had helped very few families to extract themselves from the morass of poverty, hunger, and the disease in which they lived. He compared his well-intentioned but ineffective efforts to swatting mosquitoes in a malarial swamp. He decided that, in order to be effective, he would have to re-direct his efforts to draining the swamp. Thenceforth, he devoted his life to changing social conditions that cause poverty and all its attendant miseries. He was serving as an early model for today’s professional social worker.”

Brawley’s “Speaking Out” is published by Humanity Books.