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Use-Based Welfare: Property Experiments in Chicago, 1895–1935

  • Nate Ela


Use-based welfare achieves redistribution by reallocating rights to use and benefit from idle resources, rather than through tax and transfer. How and why has this form of welfare provision emerged as an urban institution, and what affects whether it endures? This article compares projects to grant poor and unemployed Chicagoans access to land for gardens and small farms between 1895 and 1935, explaining how this form of social support came about through experiments with rules, norms, and forms of property. While social policy is typically understood as emerging through the realization of rights to public support, use-based welfare turns instead on efforts to create a legal privilege for the needy to use idle resources. During the Progressive Era and the Great Depression, this form of relief was pitched as both an alternative and a complement to welfare based on tax and transfer. Yet efforts to establish it as a permanent institution repeatedly failed, due to implementation challenges, opposition from people committed to treating land and food as commodities, and the nonemergence of a social movement to defend land access. Recognizing the historical dynamics of use-based welfare offers a new perspective on the contemporary resurgence of urban farming as a strategy for addressing unemployment and poverty.



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Versions of this paper were presented at the American Sociology Association Economic Sociology Section’s 2016 preconference workshop and at a 2017 ASA session on the welfare state. I am grateful for comments at those gatherings, as well as from participants in the Economic Sociology Workshop at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Boston College Environmental Sociology Working Group, and from the anonymous reviewers. Special thanks are due to Meghan Morris and Erik Olin Wright. This research has received support from the Social Science Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy.



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