When Ronald Reagan was running for president, one of his favorite campaign anecdotes was about “a woman in Chicago” who had used 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards to scam the Department of Public Aid out of welfare benefits. The source of Reagan’s story was a Chicago Tribune expose on Linda Taylor, who eventually served time in state prison for welfare fraud. As the prototypical “welfare queen,” Taylor’s mythology helped Reagan build a case for cutting benefits to the needy, and later contributed to Bill Clinton’s campaign to “end welfare as we know it.”
In his book The Queen, journalist Josh Levin tells the life story of this footnote character in American political history, and finds that the crime for which she is remembered was just a minor incident in a life of theft and deception.
Levin, the national editor at Slate, is best known as host of the website’s Hang Up and Listen sports podcast. On June 10, he discusses The Queen with WBEZ’s Natalie Moore at Seminary Co-Op in Hyde Park.
Linda lived all over the country and grifted her way across America, but she achieved her greatest notoriety in Chicago. Was it easier to game the system here? Was there more media attention?
I think it's a combination of those factors. She was someone who committed crimes wherever she went all throughout her life. She was in Chicago for 15 to 20 years, and during that period, there were a couple things going on. The first was the perception of the welfare crisis in the country in the late '60s and early '70s. A lot of people who before had been denied access to public aid programs were given access, and there was this notion that welfare was bankrupting the country. The Taylor story came along at a moment when [people were looking] for an anecdote to illustrate this concept.
I also think the fact that Chicago was such a strong newspaper town — in 1974, when Taylor's story was publicized, there were still four daily newspapers — [created] this really strong scoop culture. The Tribune was known for being the best local paper in the country, and it also had a conservative bent. Once it caught wind of her story, it was inevitable how they would play it. And once it got all that coverage, it became useful to politicians.
Who was George Bliss, the Tribune reporter who wrote the exposés on Taylor's welfare fraud? Did he have a political axe to grind, or was he just looking for a story about taxpayers getting fleeced?
George Bliss was a multiple Pulitzer Prize winner and had a reputation as the best investigative reporter in Chicago. His subject was government corruption, and he often investigated institutions which were taking advantage of vulnerable people. He [contributed to] a Pulitzer Prize–winning series on election fraud in Chicago. In this case, the story started as a look at bureaucratic incompetence in the Department of Public Aid, but his stories about Taylor became more about her. Taylor was a way for him to keep getting stories in the paper.
What really made Linda a historic figure was Ronald Reagan talking about her. Was he outraged by the stories he read in the Tribune, or did she simply fit his need for an anti-welfare anecdote?
During the 1976 presidential campaign, [Reagan] was looking for ways to convince voters that he was a serious candidate. Welfare reform was something he had undertaken as governor of California, and it was his serious policy accomplishment, and so it was a way he could point to his credentials. At the same time, the crowd response to the story he told about Linda Taylor using 80 different names and having a tax-free income from welfare of $150,000 a year was unbelievably intense. You could hear the crowd collectively gasp. Reagan was a performer, and he understood this was an element of his performance that he should return to.
At that point, because of the country’s economic doldrums and the way that welfare had been identified as this crisis, politicians [knew] white, working- and middle-class voters really identified with [welfare] as an explanation for their problems — these people who weren't working and were supposedly getting rich. That was a very racialized sentiment.
Did Reagan ever mention that Linda Taylor was African-American?
He did not identify her race, and because of that, it’s been the subject of debate whether Reagan was personally racist. Welfare was a way, and continues to be today, for politicians to talk about race without talking about race.
He had other stories in which he would talk about "a strapping young buck" buying steak with food stamps.
He mentioned that on the trail in Florida. During the campaign, The New York Times was writing stories about Reagan and whether he was using dog whistles. Whether or not Reagan was personally racist, you have to be incredibly naive not to understand that this was a racialized issue. It was just understood that when you were talking about somebody who was stealing from public aid, that was widely assumed to be a black woman.
Was Linda Taylor typical of welfare cheats in the 1970s, or was she an extreme example? In other words, in her case was the real problem welfare fraud, or was it Linda Taylor?
Linda Taylor definitely wasn’t typical, as even her loudest critics acknowledged. One Illinois bureaucrat called her “the biggest welfare cheat of all time,” while Ronald Reagan touted the fact that Taylor “holds the record” for welfare fraud. Regardless, Taylor was held up as a symbol of how the welfare system was broken, and why it needed to be reformed.
In reality, the most common form of “cheating” was for aid recipients to fail to report income from off-the-books work — money that would supplement welfare benefits that were too meager to support a family. Before Taylor rose to infamy, that kind of rule-breaking was typically handled administratively. After Taylor’s crimes got publicized, prosecutions for even small-time welfare fraud ramped up to a huge degree.
How much did Linda's story end up contributing to reductions in welfare under Reagan and Clinton? Were the deserving needy hurt as a result of her deceptions?
Linda Taylor's story was important in framing welfare being the problem, rather than the problem being the need to provide aid to poor people. That was a belief that long [preceded] Linda Taylor, but [her story] really solidified it for people. Reagan continued to tell it in 1980, when he ran for president successfully, and he continued to tell it when he was in office, building an argument to make cuts in social services during his first term. It did hurt needy people. If you look at the results of those cuts during his first term, I think a million people lost food stamps and around 400,000 were cut from Aid to Families with Dependent Children. During Clinton's presidency, politicians in both parties were living in the world that Reagan had made, which really centered on whether welfare was the problem rather than poverty.
You found out that welfare fraud might have been the least of Taylor’s crimes.
The beginning of her criminal record was for prostitution in the 1940s, when she was a teenager. Then [she was involved with] three suspicious deaths: The first was in 1975, when her friend Patricia Parks got sick and Taylor moved into her home to care for her. Parks died of a barbiturate overdose; Taylor was her executor and got possession of her home. She was investigated, but ultimately not prosecuted. Later, in the 1980s, Taylor’s husband at the time was shot and killed by a man Taylor claimed was her father, but was not her father. After her husband’s death, Taylor collected a bunch of life insurance money on policies they had taken out not long before. A few years after that, an old woman named Mildred Markham, that Taylor claimed alternately was her mother or her grandmother, also died under suspicious circumstances. Again, Taylor collected life insurance money on policies she had taken out not long before this woman’s death.
There are also a bunch of instances in which she took children that did not belong to her. She was investigated for kidnapping multiple times. She was arrested for it in 1967 in Chicago, but never prosecuted.
Did you ever figure out what was at the root of Linda’s criminality?
It was important to me not to go beyond my knowledge, and this is a person who was known by everyone she came across as being a liar and a con artist. I certainly feel comfortable in saying that throughout her life, she scammed people and seemed to have no regard for them. People were something for her to use.
The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth is on sale May 21, 2019. Little, Brown and Company, $14.99.