Little, Brown and Company, 432 pages, $29
When did you first hear the phrase “welfare queen”? Unlike many cultural dog whistles from the 1970s that have aged badly, “welfare queen” has botoxed its way well into middle age, an epithet that still punctures the skin of good-faith conversations about the deserving poor. Though now excluded from the newly woke stylebooks of elite journalism, the phrase lingers on in everyday threads and convos about people who are impoverished in a rich country, a modern-day meme from the age of the mimeograph.
The catchphrase owes its long life to the 1974 arrest, trial, and media circus surrounding one Linda Taylor, a nearly 50-year-old woman (her age has always been approximated due to uncertain birth records) who lived just outside Chicago and really did wear fur coats and drive a Cadillac, and who served a three-year prison sentence for fraudulently collecting an amount of welfare that in today’s money could buy, well, an entry-level Caddy. A crime to be sure, but in the rich ranks of American scammers and their frauds, more bush-league than Fyre Festival.
Thanks to the cinematic instincts of Ronald Reagan, Taylor’s welfare fraud story became the centerpiece of the candidate’s 1976 presidential campaign. Channeling Archie Bunker, Reagan made Chicago Welfare Fraud the disco-era prequel to his “Morning in America” ads. “In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. 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,” said Reagan, who would repeat this stump speech in a series of “citizen press conferences.”
The presidential candidate plumped the numbers, claiming she committed $150,000 in fraud as opposed to the $9,000 actually listed in court documents. He also never used Taylor’s name. But he didn’t need to. The City of Chicago served as a racial and socioeconomic stand-in.
“Before Taylor, the fur-coat-wearing, luxury-car-buying public aid chiseler had been something akin to the abominable snowman. The welfare queen had been lurking just out of reach for decades, a mythical being rumored to hang around grocery store checkout lines and Cadillac dealerships. Taylor’s mere existence gave credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes about poor people and black women. If one welfare queen walked the earth, then surely others did, too,” writes Josh Levin in his new book, which untangles the messy life of the actual woman behind what many Americans have long assumed to be an urban legend.
As Levin begins explaining from page one, welfare fraud was the least of Taylor’s crimes — and perhaps the only one for which she was punished in a court of law.
Taylor kidnapped infants to pass off as her own (she was arrested but never prosecuted for the crime); she acquired her homes through real estate fraud in which she staged fake burglaries to collect money in insurance scams. At various points, she passed herself off as a doctor, a voodoo priestess, a reverend, and a nurse. As one man recounted, Taylor swindled him into becoming her live-in paramour and housekeeper; she brandished a gun and threatened to kill him if he left.
She may have murdered three acquaintances, all of whom died under strange circumstances while under her care. In 1975, Taylor took over the estate of Patricia Parks after the woman died of a barbiturate overdose while in Taylor’s pill-popping version of care.
When Levin interviews Parks’ ex-husband, four decades after her death, the man recalls that police looked into Taylor but declined to arrest her. “All they said was, ‘That’s another black woman dead,’ ” he tells the author.
That early phrase haunts much of what comes later in the book. Born Martha Louise White in rural Tennessee in 1926 and listed as white in birth records, the olive-skinned Taylor was abused and shuffled around by family members, some of whom talked in evasive rumors about a black father. Although she spent her life presenting herself as a number of ethnicities (including Hawaiian, African American, white, and Latina) by swapping wigs and fake IDs, she ultimately got away with most of her crimes by choosing to prey on poor, black victims, counting on cops and courts to not care. Her welfare fraud became a national issue to journalists and politicians precisely because it tapped into a national urge to depict poor black women as unfit and undeserving of society’s safety net.
Levin studiously avoids moralizing about Taylor’s actions or psychologizing her motivations. But in attempting to connect the dots between the many Taylors, he makes it hard not to see how race shaped every one of her identities. At 432 pages, some of Levin’s backstory on the cops, marks, reporters, and a long trail of ex-husbands and former friends can become overwhelming and lose the larger narrative thread. (With its flamboyant frauds and use of period detail to reconstruct the recent past, this material could power a solid year of podcast episodes.) But for people looking for a long-haul read with journo cred, this is yeoman’s work. It is the result of six years of researching and reporting on a dead person (she died in 2002) who spent much of her life obscuring her identity from courts, family, and friends, but whose mythical existence colors our national discussions about race, welfare, and justice to this day.