Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal

Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal

Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal

Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal


Three Worlds of Relief examines the role of race and immigration in the development of the American social welfare system by comparing how blacks, Mexicans, and European immigrants were treated by welfare policies during the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Taking readers from the turn of the twentieth century to the dark days of the Depression, Cybelle Fox finds that, despite rampant nativism, European immigrants received generous access to social welfare programs. The communities in which they lived invested heavily in relief. Social workers protected them from snooping immigration agents, and ensured that noncitizenship and illegal status did not prevent them from receiving the assistance they needed. But that same helping hand was not extended to Mexicans and blacks. Fox reveals, for example, how blacks were relegated to racist and degrading public assistance programs, while Mexicans who asked for assistance were deported with the help of the very social workers they turned to for aid.

Drawing on a wealth of archival evidence, Fox paints a riveting portrait of how race, labor, and politics combined to create three starkly different worlds of relief. She debunks the myth that white America's immigrant ancestors pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, unlike immigrants and minorities today. Three Worlds of Relief challenges us to reconsider not only the historical record but also the implications of our past on contemporary debates about race, immigration, and the American welfare state.


In November 1994 more than five million California voters went to the polls and sent a message to Washington. Frustrated about the alleged costs of undocumented immigration, they passed Proposition 187, also known as the “Save Our State” initiative, by an overwhelming margin. “S.O.S.” barred undocumented immigrants from access to welfare and other non-emergency services and required social welfare providers to report suspected undocumented immigrants to immigration officials. While the measure was overturned by the courts before it was implemented, a number of states subsequently passed similar legislation.

Proposition 187’s most enduring legacy, however, came in 1996. That year, as part of its overhaul of welfare, the federal government barred states from using federal funds to provide welfare coverage to most legal immigrants who had lived in the United States fewer than five years. Congressman E. Clay Shaw (R-FL) explained the logic behind this move: “Quite frankly… when we’re cutting benefits and cutting welfare for our citizens, I don’t see why we should stretch and say that we have an obligation to those that aren’t even citizens of our own country.” Twelve years later, as the Great Recession that began in 2008 deepened, many communities looked to further cull non-citizens from their public assistance rolls. the assumption that immigrants are less deserving, that they should be the first to be cut from the social welfare rolls when budgets are tight, now appears virtually unquestionable in many circles.

Opponents of these legislative efforts have argued that the federal restrictions in 1996 were unprecedented and represented a major departure from previous federal policy, denoting the emergence of a “new nativism” that blatantly targets Mexican immigrants in particular. State-level restrictions on unauthorized immigrants, they claim, were redundant since undocumented immigrants had never been granted welfare assistance. Others disagree, claiming that these exclusions represent nothing more than simple cost considerations or a continuation of America’s historic unwillingness to extend welfare benefits to non-citizens.

These debates led me to wonder: exactly how did immigrants fare historically? After all, the modern welfare state was born on the heels of the largest surge in immigration in American history. Between 1890 and . . .

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