- Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal by Cybelle Fox
Cybelle Fox’s Three Worlds of Relief is a must-read for any scholar or graduate student interested in the development of the American welfare state. Fox “provides a nuanced picture of how race, citizenship, and nativity” defined “the boundaries of social citizenship” (281). Fox adds Mexican and Mexican American actors to a story that has focused on black-and-white racial differences. And she shows how the U.S. Southwest provided a fundamentally different political context and labor regime than the Northeast and the Deep South. Fox details how dynamics of race, labor, and politics combined to create “whole systems rather than separate, mutually exclusive variables” (16). These systems differed for European immigrants, African Americans, and Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. And by comparing these three systems—the three worlds of relief in the title—Fox details the mechanisms by which each group found access or confronted obstacles in their efforts to benefit from the changing welfare state.
Fox shows how social workers, public welfare professionals, immigration officials, machine politicians in the North, and Progressive urban reformers in the Southwest combined to implement welfare provisions in ways that created great inequalities at the local level—even when national welfare legislation seemed to provide for racial fairness. For those who believe European immigrants lifted themselves up by their bootstraps without government aid, Fox shows that, controlling for all other factors, European immigrant communities provided the largest amount of public welfare for local citizens. Cities with large European immigrant populations even provided more welfare benefits than those with predominantly native-born populations. In this way Fox substantiates historian Thomas Guglielmo’s conclusion that European immigrants were “white on arrival.”
Mexican immigrants, in contrast, entered political contexts where employers desired them as cheap labor, but where they were increasingly unpopular among the broader population, especially during the movements for immigration restriction in the 1920s and during the Great Depression. In earlier eras, agricultural employers had supported at least a modicum of relief for migrant workers so they could maintain a pool of reliable, seasonal work. But social workers, the general public, and politicians came to argue that Mexicans were overly dependent on relief and either pushed the responsibility for welfare on the employers or, as was increasingly likely, deported Mexican immigrants who appealed to public agencies for relief.
Fox confirms previous scholars’ conclusions that African Americans were largely excluded from the welfare state. While European immigrants generally won inclusion to the welfare state and African Americans were largely excluded, [End Page 107] Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest were in a “more liminal position.” (284) Legally white, they suffered the discrimination against nonwhites in practice, and they faced the additional threat of deportation.
If readers have a gripe against Fox’s work, it will likely be that the breadth of her insights are not matched by a similar depth of research into the lives of individuals and communities in the three worlds of relief. Nonetheless, Fox has set a scholarly agenda for a new social history of the American welfare state that will integrate the Southwest into a story largely about the Deep South and Northeast and that will bring Mexican immigrants into narratives told largely in black-and-white. Most importantly, this book and the work that will follow it has the potential to show how essential an active welfare state is to making immigration a driver of individual economic opportunity and national economic growth.