CHICAGO - Between the fall of 1974 and the presidential election of 1980, this newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, used the phrase "welfare queen" in more than 80 different stories. Sometimes it was bold and large, in a headline; sometimes it was tucked into copy. Sometimes it was "welfare queen" in quotes; sometimes just Welfare Queen, without any colloquial smirk - as if it were a formal title in Chicago. Which, in a way, for several years, it was.
There was the Welfare Queen/ice cream vendor who reportedly stole $11,000 in public assistance funds; and the Welfare Queen convicted of stealing just $1,013. There was the University of Illinois at Chicago criminal justice student sentenced to four years in state prison in 1979 for defrauding Illinois of $118,000 in public assistance. But Chicago's most notorious Welfare Queen was indisputably a Golddust, Tenn., grifter, possible baby trafficker, possible kidnapper and possible murderer named Linda Taylor. Her name was rarely printed without adjectives and snark attached. As in "Linda Taylor, the notorious Chicago welfare queen."
According to old reports, she hated those nicknames.
But she didn't have a choice.
She fit an image.
She did drive a Cadillac, she did wear furs. She floated around Chicago, maintaining multiple addresses, and by 1974, according to authorities, she fraudulently gathered at least $150,000 in food stamps and Social Security payments, not to mention plenty of welfare assistance and the veterans benefits of men she had never married. (The amount was likely much less.) There was nothing typical about Taylor or her actions, and yet she would come to embody an enduring and noxious cliche, the unworthy, scheming minority welfare swindler, living high off of government largesse and the hard-fought earnings of honest working-class Americans.
According to Slate editor Josh Levin - whose new book "The Queen" tells the story of Taylor, her crimes and evolution into a national mythology and rhetorical cudgel for politicians - one Tribune reporter alone, George Bliss, the three-time Pulitzer winner who first exposed Taylor's abuses, used "welfare queen" more than three dozen times.
"The phrase was a succinct distillation of an old idea," Levin said in his office the other day, a short walk from the White House, whose chief occupant even now is criticized for painting swaths of marginalized people with broad brushes.
By the mid-'70s - just as Taylor was becoming Exhibit A of the undeserving poor - more women of color were being granted access to the assistance benefits long denied to them. The previous decade had seen the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty, as well as uprisings in Chicago and around the country. "The image of poverty at the time became black," Levin said. Taylor, who he believes was likely mixed race, was identified variously as black, white, Hawaiian and Mexican. Not that it mattered much. "Welfare had been racialized, and 'welfare queen' captured the concept of people getting something they didn't deserve - worse, living better than you! These were rough economic times, paychecks weren't buying as much. If you wanted to stoke contempt for people supposedly getting rich without lifting a hand, the time was right."
As Levin notes in "The Queen," Taylor's "mere existence gave credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes about poor people and black women" gaming the system.
Yet arguably it's Ronald Reagan who gained the most.
He rarely said "welfare queen" in public. He referred to Taylor as merely "a woman in Chicago." But her public-assistance crimes - which Reagan read about in news reports, then fastened into a fixture of stump speeches during the 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns - became his go-to, ready-baked cautionary tale. Public assistance, he said, was wasteful, run by do-nothing bureaucrats. And the people it served? They were out there buying steaks and lobsters with food stamps. They were living in housing projects as plush as country clubs. And how were the '70s treating you, struggling middle-class voter? Were you as well off as those people getting something for nothing?
As well as that woman in Chicago?
"Reagan didn't go into great detail about Taylor's background, because he didn't have to in the 1970s," said Rick Perlstein, the Chicago-based historian best known for his trilogy of books about the rise of conservative politics, including "Nixonland" and "The Invisible Bridge." "Reagan only had to draw her as symbolically terrifying, with a clear implication she was not alone - there were a thousand Linda Taylors, waiting to bankrupt your city."
Reagan would tell his supporters she used 80 aliases, 30 addresses, 15 phone numbers. That was true. But he would never mention the far worse crimes she was linked to. And he would never specify her race. He wouldn't have to. Though Levin notes studies that the percentage of black Americans on public aid remained steady throughout the '70s - though most Americans getting assistance, then and now, are white - welfare was portrayed in media reports for decades as a black entitlement.
"There was a moral panic in the mid-'70s," Perlstein said. "Yet whenever (Reagan) pulled out Taylor - whenever he said anything the (political) opposition might use to shame him - he would frame the story in a way to absolve its listeners of embarrassment or racism. People talk of dog whistles and train whistles. Reagan would never call Mexicans 'criminals.' But he was naive about how a narrative affected policy."
Some of the Tribune's coverage of Taylor can read considerably more insensitive than Reagan's infamous "welfare queen" speeches - one 1975 headline wondered if Taylor's talent for grifting people was caused by voodoo.
That said, Reagan's speeches are lessons in opportunism, distortion and at the very least, blinkered self-awareness - the former president's own father, an alcoholic who had trouble holding jobs, found his steadiest work as a welfare administrator in Dixon, Ill. And ramifications were vast.
Reagan's welfare queen energized and outraged voters and helped land him in the White House, where he then worked to cement the belief that the problem with welfare was actually the welfare bureaucracy itself. Which eased pressure on addressing a more nebulous problem, poverty.
And so, for decades, poor families were pulled off of public assistance, leading to the Clinton administration's later actions to "end welfare as we know it." Within a decade, the number of children living in poverty in this country more than doubled. Linda Taylor had been an unwitting salvo in what resembles a propaganda war against the poor.
The Tribune wasn't the first media organization to employ "welfare queen," but the newspaper popularized the phrase. Then, according to Kate Walz, vice president of advocacy at Chicago's Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Reagan weaponized it. "We see the reverberations. We are continually having to explain why people are poor, why they are not undeserving, why it's not as easy as telling people to pull themselves up by bootstraps. A lot of it goes back to (Reagan's) narrative, when public benefit programs became slurs. It predates Reagan. But he perfected the idea."
Levin is long and thin, with an oval face, and a pensive manner. With his sky blue button-down shirt and black-framed eyeglasses, he gives off an aura of NASA mission control wonkiness, circa 1967. He is not from Chicago; he grew up in New Orleans, and has been at Slate since 2003, moving up from editorial assistant to national editor.
Seven years ago, when the online magazine had an initiative that allowed staff to spend a month on a project, he started looking further into an old Jet article about Linda Taylor.
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"I didn't know there was a real person associated with the 'welfare queen,'" he said. "But also, I was interested I didn't know about it - I was interested in how something so consequential could be erased from memory and history."
So did others.
The initial story he wrote about Taylor became one of Slate's most popular pieces ever, and a few years later, Levin started the book. He dug exhaustively through real estate records, prison records, Cook County court files, Illinois state archives, FBI and Chicago Police Department papers; because Taylor had died at 76 in a nursing home in 2002, he spoke with Taylor's children, people who knew Taylor, people who knew people who knew Taylor. She had been linked for years to a murder (though was never charged ); Levin linked her with two additional murders - people in Taylor's orbit had a weird habit of dying just after she was named a recipient of their life insurance policies.
Levin also documented that, though reports tied Taylor to $150,000 in assistance fraud, the amount stolen was likely closer to $40,000, over several years.
He learned a lot about Chicago.
"Like many projects, you start in a place of ignorance, and the more you know, the more you feel you don't know anything - that felt especially true in Chicago. The way power gets wielded in the city is remarkable." One judge who had set Taylor's bail eventually went to jail on corruption convictions; later, another judge who berated a different Chicago "welfare queen" for callous and amoral disregard was found to be fixing trials for money. As for the media, despite Taylor being a suspected kidnapper and murderer, despite links to child trafficking, "institutions slipped into a mode of using her to represent a group of vulnerable people. It's not like the Tribune wasn't sympathetic to the needy - the question of willfulness is hard to answer. But there was a lack of appreciating what downstream effects may be."
Bliss, the reporter most associated with Taylor, was initially writing about the Illinois Department of Public Aid and its disinterest in welfare fraud. "But stories were increasingly about Linda," Levin said. "Stories about the department don't mention her, stories about her don't mention the department. It lacked context - or a note that none of it was typical."
Bliss was known for government corruption investigations. "He was no ideologue," said Bill Mullen, a retired Tribune investigative reporter who was close to Bliss. "I couldn't have told you if he was a Democrat or a Republican." Bill Recktenwald, who worked with Bliss at the Better Government Association and the Tribune, doubts Bliss even came up with "welfare queen" himself: "George wasn't a writer, he was a reporter who would return to the newspaper and sit on the edge of a rewrite desk, crafting a story." Still, Mullen said, "the way the (traditionally conservative) Tribune handled Taylor probably fed into (anti-welfare) sensibilities. And George played along."
The stories coincided with Reagan's rise from the California governorship to national politics, and "welfare's tax burden on the middle class was one leg of the (platform) that he had run long on," Perlstein said. "He had a big line about people coming to California because welfare rules were so simple there - you could draw assistance after 21 days, he said. In fact, it took five years of residency, then 21 days. But that was typical of him."
Actually, Reagan's welfare tales were in keeping with a long tradition, said Heather Hahn, a senior fellow at the the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington where she specializes in public assistance and poverty. "The image of the undeserving poor dates at the very least to the Elizabethan Poor Laws of the 16th century, when the poor had to basically demonstrate their deservingness (generally to clergy who maintained welfare rolls). And it's a thread running ever since through assistance programs. It's also a reminder how powerful narrative is in shaping the consequences for how people live."
After Linda Taylor, she said, the poor "had to jump through hoops to prove they weren't Linda Taylor."
Few could have been.
The details of Reagan's story were so outrageous even Tip O'Neill, speaker of the House, told Reagan he doubted that welfare queen existed. But the Linda Taylor of Levin's book was far, far more outrageous: She was born Martha Louise White, but tried on a dizzying array of identities, races, addresses. She had five children, kidnapped others and abandoned some, according to Levin's book and the Tribune's reporting. She worked as a spiritualist and once identified herself as a heart surgeon. She was Connie Reed, and Connie Harbaugh, and Constance Wakefield, and Connie Green - and many others. She was jailed for welfare fraud and perjury, but never charged with suspected kidnappings or murders. In the mid-'70s, the Tribune linked her to the 1964 abduction of Paul Fronczak, a day-old infant at the former Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville. The case remains unsolved, but someone using one of Taylor's familiar aliases visited the hospital the day of the abduction; Taylor was also seen that day wearing a nurse's uniform. (She was never charged with the crime.)
"Other than her children, no one had a long-term relationship with Linda," Levin said. "The pattern was, she would blow into people's lives, disturb everything in her path, then leave. So (when he talked with people who knew her), I would ask about the weeks or months that they knew her, and then inevitably I would tell them what she had done before and after the time they knew her. Nobody was even aware that she was dead."
Taylor was a cipher, and Levin decided not to go far beyond that: By the end of the book, we don't really know why she was the way she was. "If I'm making a critique of the way she was written about, I wanted to be careful not to make what I perceive are the same mistakes and assumptions. You want to say with clarity and rigor who this person was. But she's just out of reach. It's not a cop out - it's honest."
One footnote to this:
Taylor's mental health, at various times, was questioned by doctors and lawyers, but remained outside of media accounts of her life. In comparison, in 1978, after rounds of shock treatments and time in a psychiatric facility, Bliss shot his wife to death and killed himself. In a front page story, then-Tribune editor Clayton Kirkpatrick said Bliss was a perfectionist who suffered from extreme depression, and "the terrible burden of mental illness compounded by an awareness of its presence ultimately proved too severe."
Today, the legacy of the "welfare queen" is seen in the push for work requirements for public-aid recipients; it's felt in shifts of terminology, from "safety net" to a more loaded "entitlement." It's heard in the "false narrative that people on public assistance don't want to work," said Hahn of the Urban Institute, "when the reality is most recipients are in low-wage jobs - often several low-wage jobs."
It's felt in the dismantling of the welfare system itself.
But also, Levin said, nodding toward K Street outside his office, it's seen in the way politicians used the 2015 killing of a woman in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant as proof that the undocumented are dangerous.
"A lack of interest in facts and statistics. The use of a single not-typical story was an example of what's going on everyday, under our feet. It just all feels strangely familiar."
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