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Three Worlds of Relief

Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal

Cybelle Fox

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: Princeton University Press

Series: Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

Reflecting on the decision-making process after the Cuban missile crisis was over, President Kennedy famously observed that “the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself. . . . There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process—mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved...


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pp. ix

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Chapter 1 Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State

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pp. 1-18

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...

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Chapter 2 Three Worlds of Race, Labor, and Politics

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pp. 19-51

Blacks, European immigrants, and Mexicans each suffered from significant discrimination at the hands of native-born whites in the early part of the twentieth century. But their treatment in the American welfare system during this period could not have been more different. European immigrants were largely included in the social welfare system, blacks were largely excluded, while Mexicans were often expelled from the nation...

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Chapter 3 Three Worlds of Relief

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pp. 52-72

Reviewing recent developments in the field of social work for President Hoover’s Committee on Social Trends, Sydnor Walker noted that “No true idea of trends of social work in the United States can be given without noting the different stages of development in urban and in rural areas, in the east and in the south.” In New Orleans in 1929, she explained, 100 percent...

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Chapter 4 The Mexican Dependency Problem

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pp. 73-94

On the eve of the Great Depression, the Los Angeles Municipal League asked R. R. Miller, the superintendent of outdoor relief for the County Department of Charities, to answer “a criticism on the alleged excessive amount of relief that goes to Mexicans.” Miller responded in an article for the Municipal League Bulletin entitled “The Mexican Dependency Problem.” According to Miller, the “best population statistics” indicated that...

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Chapter 5 No Beggar Spirit

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pp. 95-123

In 1917 the famed settlement house leader Grace Abbott wrote that “Untrustworthy generalizations as to the extent of dependency among the foreign born, especially those from southern and eastern Europe, are frequently made.” Mexicans indeed were not the only group stereotyped as charity prone prior to the Great Depression. Nativists and eugenicists had long tried to build a case that southern and eastern European immigrants...

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Chapter 6 Deporting the Unwelcome Visitors

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pp. 124-155

In October 1935, the Los Angeles Times reported on a group of mostly Mexican individuals deported from Southern California during the Depression. The article, which labeled those deported “unwelcome visitors,” played off the all too common stereotypes of Mexicans as “breeders,” “lazy,” and “dependent.” Below a picture of one family, the caption read in part, “Among those sent out was Simon Alvarado and his family. . . . He and his wife...

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Chapter 7 Repatriating the Unassimilable Aliens

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pp. 156-187

Writing in the American Mercury in the early 1930s, Carey McWilliams pointedly described the origins of the great exodus of Mexicans and Mexican Americans streaming south across the Rio Grande. When it became apparent last year that the program for the relief of the unemployed would assume huge proportions in the Mexican quarter, the community swung to a determination to oust the Mexican. . . . At this juncture, an ingenious..

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Chapter 8 A Fair Deal or a Raw Deal?

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pp. 188-213

Unlike Mexicans, black Americans were not expelled from the nation for using relief, although the thought had certainly occurred to some. In the late 1930s, Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo advocated the deportation of American blacks in order to solve the economic crisis. Using data that showed twelve million unemployed, Bilbo argued that the Depression would come to an end with the “firing [of] these 12,000,000 Negroes back...

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Chapter 9 The WPA and the (Short- Lived) Triumph of Nativism

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pp. 214-249

In 1936 Congressman Martin Dies (D-TX) published an anti-alien screed in the Washington Herald. In it, he charged that a million and a half aliens were on relief, at a cost of half a billion dollars per year. “While European nations eject all jobless foreigners our Labor Department now coddles them,” he charged. “These aliens write home joyfully declaring that they are better off here on relief than they ever were at home at hard work.” But rather...

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Chapter 10 A New Deal for the Alien

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pp. 250-280

When FDR signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935, he told the nation that “Today a hope of many years’ standing is in large part fulfilled.” This social security measure gives at least some protection to thirty millions of our citizens. . . . We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age....

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Chapter 11 The Boundaries of Social Citizenship

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pp. 281-294

A popular “national recovery pep song” during the Depression titled “Marching Along Together” tried to galvanize the nation to face the crisis with unity, optimism, and confidence that better times were ahead. Its collective, hopeful theme was reflected in much of the New Deal’s iconography. A Social Security Board poster showed a stream of smiling, well-dressed adults, working-class types and professionals—old and new immigrant...

Abbreviations in the Notes

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pp. 295-298


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pp. 299-370


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pp. 371-394

Other Works in the Series

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pp. 395-398

E-ISBN-13: 9781400842582
E-ISBN-10: 1400842581
Print-ISBN-13: 9780691152240
Print-ISBN-10: 0691152241

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: Course Book
Series Title: Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives