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.
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.
But Taylor’s habitual lies and flamboyant style (her pride wouldn’t allow her to wear something more modest than her fur coat to court) gave some credence to the stereotypes that countless people carried around in their heads about welfare recipients.
Levin explores what I call the “colorization of poverty” in news coverage in the 1960s that set the stage for Taylor’s unwanted stardom as a political trope.
Michael Harrington’s 1962 book “The Other America” brought new attention to the deprivations of the white rural poor and helped inspire Johnson’s 1964 “War on Poverty.” But after riots later broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles, the West Side of Chicago and in other cities, the newsmagazine images of poverty that showed black people increased, according to one survey, from 27% in 1964 to 70% in 1972 and 1973.
As such media images increased, so did the perception that poverty is a black problem, despite abundant statistical evidence that the nation’s poor whites outnumber poor people of color. One result, as Levin notes, has been the recasting of the word “welfare,” especially in conservative conversations, as almost every government social program except Social Security and Medicare, which we tend to prefer to call “entitlements.”
Taylor died in 2002, but her legacy lives on in today’s polarized Washington. President Donald Trump’s exaggerations of immigrants entering the U.S. illegally as “rapists and murderers,” for example, sounds like his own version of “welfare queen” code. Yet, the rising popularity of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is pressuring Republicans to come up with a replacement before they leave millions without health insurance.
Post-Reagan Republicans are more comfortable with cutting taxes — even when it raises deficits — and dismantling government programs than with creating new ones. Yet, at a time when the Federal Reserve reports that 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense, a lot of people are discovering that poverty isn’t just somebody’s else’s problem. It’s hitting closer to home.