Three Worlds of Relief

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Fox, Cybelle. Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. ix + 393 pp.


In Three Worlds of Relief, sociologist Cybelle Fox seeks to move beyond the black-white framework that has long defined race scholarship. In examining the American welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century, Fox argues that three worlds of relief did indeed exist, distinguished by race considerations as well as local labor conditions and the extent of political incorporation. In other words, welfare was not administered on equal terms to blacks, Mexicans, and European immigrants. In exploring relief across these groups, Fox encourages readers “to think about racial, political, and labor market contexts as whole systems rather than separate, mutually exclusive variables” (16).

Black, Mexican, and European immigrant populations were concentrated in certain localities and thus, as Fox argues, relief was determined as much by regional economies and political systems as by each group’s social position. The majority of blacks lived in the South where planters viewed relief as threatening to a labor system that rested on their ability to exert complete control over the labor supply. By contrast, the majority of the Mexican population resided in the Southwest where growers often viewed relief in more positive terms as a solution to sustain laborers in the off-season. (It wasn’t until FDR’s New Deal policies pushed assistance above wage levels that growers would begin to oppose relief.) Relief officials in the Southwest, however, came to oppose welfare assistance, viewing relief to Mexicans as an illegitimate subsidy to the agricultural industry. Further, as blacks were disfranchised and many Mexicans non-citizens, neither group was fully incorporated in the body politic and thus lacked the political influence to reform the system. As a consequence, states in the South and Southwest and cities that included larger populations of blacks and Mexicans spent significantly less on relief than those in the North where the majority of European immigrants settled. Many European immigrants were naturalized citizens or had children or spouses who could vote and were therefore more fully integrated into the political machinery. With greater political power than either blacks or Mexicans, European immigrants ultimately could exert a greater influence over the provision of relief.

Fox also argues for the considerable power that social workers and relief officials were able to exert in shaping and interpreting relief policies. Relief officials came to view low naturalization rates among Mexicans as proof of unassimilability and their presence on public assistance rolls as fodder for a stereotype of Mexican dependency. Clinging to this stereotype, social workers discriminated against Mexicans in their relief efforts, sometimes working with immigration officials in their deportation efforts and even taking the lead in some repatriation schemes. By contrast, social workers helped perpetuate a stereotype of European immigrants as hard-working men and women. Unlike Mexicans, Europeans were not perpetually dependent but merely victims of circumstance. With a little aid, European immigrants could fully assimilate. Thus, even after a rise in nativism led to federal regulation that severely restricted European immigration, relief officials worked to combat negative images of European immigrants and to ensure they continued to receive relief.

Under FDR, the situation of blacks and Mexicans did improve as they gained access to more federal relief under various New Deal programs. However, as Fox argues, three worlds of relief persisted as agricultural and domestic fields, occupations dominated by blacks and Mexicans, were consistently excluded from New Deal legislation. Europeans were more likely (even than native whites) to work in covered occupations and thus to benefit from the expansion of relief services. Fox’s distinction between worlds helps us to understand “just how high the deck was stacked against blacks and Mexicans and how much it favored European immigrants” (293).


Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

By moving beyond the black-white framework that often defines studies of race, Fox expands our understanding not just of race and race relations but of how race interacted with labor and politics to create three very distinct worlds of relief. In choosing this “worlds” approach, Fox forces readers to think about race, labor, and politics not as single variables but as interlocking systems working together to help or hinder one’s access to the welfare state.

While Fox does well in arguing that blacks, Mexicans, and European immigrants confronted different worlds of relief based on issues of race, economics, and politics, she also successfully argues that these worlds were significantly impacted by the authority that social workers were able to assert in implementing assistance. One of the strongest examples of this authority can be seen in Fox’s chapter on repatriation efforts. Viewing Mexicans as unassimilable and perpetually dependent, social workers collaborated with immigration officials to remove Mexicans from the state, simply denied relief to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and even organized and financed their own repatriation efforts.

Fox’s distinctions between worlds is stark and at times it seems to over exaggerate the ease with which European immigrants accessed the social welfare system. But the stark distinction that Fox draws does help to debunk the myth of the “bootstrapping and self-sufficient” European immigrant; as Fox argues, “many European immigrants worked hard and did what they could to get ahead…they also got a lot of help” (292.) This is especially significant when placed against current misconceptions of public assistance.

Given Fox’s systems focus, there is not much agency granted to actual welfare recipients in this work but this is not to criticize Fox’s study as this is obviously not her intent. It is the rethinking of racial, labor, and political systems that Fox intends and, in this, she succeeds.

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