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The true story behind the 'welfare queen' stereotype


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Megan Thompson: The stereotype of the so-called 'welfare queen' has been used to demonize those on public assistance for decades. It's a politically potent image, depicting an undeserving aid recipient getting rich on the backs of taxpayers.

Politicians, including former President Ronald Reagan, have been accused of exploiting this image as a kind of racist dog whistle.

Meanwhile, the original "welfare queen" that Reagan used as the basis for his caricature was based on a real person.

The new book "The Queen," tells the story of a woman who went by many names, was accused of many crimes, and whose image as a Cadillac-driving welfare recipient has lived on.

Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with the book's author, Josh Levin about the real life woman behind the moniker.

Hari Sreenivasan: Josh there's this "welfare queen" moniker that's been used really to demonize entire groups of people. You go through this entire book and take a dive not just into that phrase but really that it's based on a real person. She was an outlier while at the same time becoming an icon for a whole category.

Josh Levin: Yeah that's exactly right. Her name was Linda Taylor and she was identified by the Chicago Tribune in 1974 as a person who had committed welfare fraud while driving fancy cars, including a Cadillac. And very quickly after that she was given the nickname the welfare queen. And it was a nickname and a stereotype that really very quickly blew up.

Hari Sreenivasan: You know it was a Chicago paper that gave her that nickname but it's really Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail that makes that phrase such a household idea. How did it get from the Chicago paper into his speeches?

Josh Levin: One of his advisers had found a wire story about it and Reagan was looking for kind of outrageous stories about welfare because welfare reform had been one of his big accomplishments as governor of California. And it was also something that voters were outraged about in the mid 1970s increased welfare spending at a time when the economy was really poor. And this idea that there were welfare cheats out there was something that created outrage.

Ronald Reagan Campaign Speech, 1976: 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 veterans husbands. Her tax-free cash income, alone, has been running $150,000 a year.

Josh Levin: He didn't say the phrase "welfare queen" in his speeches he would talk about how there was this woman in Chicago who'd stolen as much as one hundred fifty thousand dollars in welfare money in a single year, which was an exaggerated sum. But there was such baggage attached to welfare at that point that I think the electorate really understood what he was saying and really knew what he was talking about. Welfare has been an effective talking point for a whole generation of politicians.

Bill Clinton Campaign Ad, 1992: I have a plan to end welfare as we know it to break the cycle of welfare dependency.

Josh Levin: When Bill Clinton said he wanted to end welfare as we know it during his 1992 campaign that was enormously popular with people on both sides of the aisle. I think it's partly responsible for his victory in 1992 and then when the Clinton welfare reform passed in 1996 welfare went from being an entitlement to being temporary assistance and if you're below the requisite poverty level you still don't necessarily get benefits today.

Hari Sreenivasan: Tell us a little bit more about her. I mean, she was kind of a racial chameleon, almost.

Josh Levin: In the 70s, she was kind of coded as being black, people perceived welfare recipients at that point as being black but some of the first stories about her noted that she could change her identity by changing a wig that she could be black or white or Latina or Filipina and this was seen as just another example of her deviousness. But as I found in my research her history with race is far more complicated and in many ways sad. She was born in the Deep South and was rejected by her white relatives due to, you know, her mixed-race identity. She was somebody who was forced to pass because of the way growing up as a black person in a white family in the south it was illegal for her to be black in certain circumstances. It's just a very complicated and fraught history for her.

Hari Sreenivasan: Do you think that this welfare queen idea would have stuck nearly as much if she had presented as a white woman or was just a white woman?

Josh Levin: I think that she was the right person, at the right place, at the right time. Or depending on your vantage, the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I think this idea of the welfare queen was something that was so powerful. I mean such a strong message politically. And you can see that in how she was arrested for kidnapping in Chicago. She was accused of murder. But all of that information got left out and sanded away. That's not something that Reagan ever mentioned, certainly.

Hari Sreenivasan: No. I mean that's what some of the fascinating stuff around your reporting is that while she's officially arrested for welfare fraud, kidnapping and potential murder charges in her life are some things that we don't hear about.

Josh Levin: One of the more remarkable things that I found in my research was that she was arrested and indicted for welfare fraud in 1974. When she's out on bail she is suspected of homicide. A woman that she was living with died of a drug overdose and there is very strong reason to believe that Taylor had been responsible for it and yet she isn't ultimately charged. When the story of her life is told contemporaneously in the news on television in speeches by Ronald Reagan and others that just doesn't get mentioned at all. It's like it never even happened.

Hari Sreenivasan: So what do we know about her today? Does she exist anywhere? Did she die? Does she have family?

Josh Levin: What I've learned is that she went to prison for welfare fraud in the late 1970s when she got out. She eventually moved to Florida. And in the 90s she was hit with federal charges there ended up incarcerated. She was eventually released and her family took her back to Illinois where she died in 2002, in total obscurity and under a different name.

Hari Sreenivasan: Josh why do this story why spend years researching this? What drew you to it?

Josh Levin: I wasn't aware that there had been a real life model for the welfare queen myth and stereotype. When I learned about it back in 2012 that Linda Taylor had been really the first person to be given this nickname and that the image of the fur coats and the Cadillac came from her I was fascinated both by that fact and the idea that a myth and a stereotype could endure in a person's image but that person herself could be forgotten and erased was just so kind of transfixing to me and I became obsessed with trying to figure out who this person had been and why she had been forgotten.

Hari Sreenivasan: Alright, the book is called the Queen. Josh Levin, thanks so much.

Josh Levin: Thank you.

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