B06Migration and Welfare States in the USA

Our project examines processes of human categorization and social taxonomies that underlie public policy-making in the U.S. in the twentieth century. In particular, we study classification systems generated in the context of immigration debates that shaped social and economic policy. We argue that expert cultures and state bureaucracies constructed categories such as “ethnicity” and “race” as part of efforts to embed the politics of consumption and the modern welfare state.

The pens at Ellis Island, Registry Room (or Great Hall). These people have passed the first mental inspection. ca. 1902.


The transition to a consumption-oriented economy, the possibility of “freedom from want,” and the vision of material abundance for all are among the central experiences of twentieth-century industrial modernity. At the same time, however, the emergence of consumer capitalism in the U.S. since the late nineteenth century is accompanied by restrictive and racialized immigration laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the National Origins Act (1924). Our focus is on a range of social scientists, civic reformers, bureaucrats, immigrant activists, trade unionists and other public figures who shaped the politics of mass consumption and the modern welfare state based on their analysis of the “immigration problem.” We trace the way their immigration-related social taxonomies shaped human self-understandings, public debates, and political projects during the “age of surplus.”


The project explores the tools and methods of categorizing immigrants according to, for example, diet, health, education, skills, social habits, domestic life, sanitation and income levels as part of the construction of new consumer subjectivities. It suggests that many of the protagonists of the study used the biopolitics of the immigration debate to define the U.S. consumer as part of their vision of a modern welfare state. In examining the classifications and social taxonomies underlying public policy formation, the project highlights the mutual construction of migration issues, consumer society, and social policy.

Anja-Maria Bassimir vor einem Bild Paul Bunyans an einer großen Außenwand. Er hat ein Karohemd an, und einen braunen Vollbart. Darunter steht: Bangor wants you. (Text verdeckt) all creative people.
Dr. Anja-Maria Bassimir standing in front of a painting of Paul Bunyan in Bangor.

Contribution to Contemporary Debates

The project suggests that both ethnoracialism and multiculturalism were central to legitimizing and operationalizing consumer policies and defining the social remit of the state at different times. It points to continuities between welfare state policies and the more recent neoliberal dismantling of systems of social provision. It also shows that anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years has less to do with the number or origin of migrants than with a crisis of consumer society in an age of limited resources.