Chicago's 'welfare queen' still colorizes our poverty debate
In 1976, as California Gov. Ronald Reagan struggled to gain traction for his first presidential campaign, he told a story to a lunch crowd in North Carolina that would help carry him to the White House four years later.
By then, his often-repeated anecdote would be known famously as his "welfare queen" story.
"In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record," he said. "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. ... Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year."
Some skeptics thought the story was too bizarre to be true. Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill was quoted by The Washington Post as telling Reagan, "I never did believe your story about the Chicago welfare queen." He wasn't alone.
But while Reagan conveniently exaggerated parts of his yarn (she was formally charged with bilking only about $8,000 in public aid funds), she did exist.
In the Chicago Tribune newsroom where I worked at the time, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter George Bliss broke the woman's story, and the moniker "welfare queen" was soon used in a headline on one of his stories. We knew her as Linda Taylor, a career scam artist for whom welfare fraud was one of her lesser offenses.
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As Josh Levin reports in his new and exhaustively researched book, "The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth," she had a long arrest record and was suspected of other crimes, including murder and baby theft.
But none of that drew as much attention as the allegations of welfare fraud. Recounted in Reagan's folksy speeches and radio commentaries, that narrative of a Cadillac-driving, fur coat-wearing welfare cheat helped Reagan to revive the conservative movement and take it to the White House after Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
And, although Reagan didn't mention race in his story, the myth of the "welfare queen" contained some not-too-subtle racial code as a new symbol of the undeserving poor. "The audience knew what this welfare-swiping villain looked like," Levin writes. "She was a lazy, black con artist, unashamed about cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn."
In fact, Taylor was no more representative of America's poor than, say, convicted felon Bernie Madoff is representative of investment advisers.