Gaby Febland

“Welfare Queen,” A Misnomer

A new book highlights how in the 1970s one woman altered American welfare policy forever

In 2013, author Josh Levin first became acquainted with the story of Linda Taylor, first nicknamed “The Welfare Queen” by a Rochester newspaper. Levin wrote a detailed article for Slate that both brought her crimes to light and detailed her iconization by Ronald Reagan and other politicians looking for a way to cut money to public aid programs. Taylor was infamous, and then she was forgotten—yet her existence influenced policy surrounding public aid for decades. 

The Queen, Levin’s biography of Linda Taylor, is a complicated portrait of a woman whose motives can never be fully uncovered. Her actions, and the way others vilified them, changed the course of welfare policy in this country forever. In this, the book tells two interconnected stories of theft: Taylor’s attempts to defraud state governments, and politicians’ efforts to steal from the country’s poorest citizens through unscrupulous policy.

The book opens with a 1974 encounter between Taylor, who had reported a (non-existent) burglary at her apartment, and Chicago Police Department policeman Jack Sherwin, whose quest to take down Taylor weaves throughout the book. At the time, Taylor was in her late forties. “She was just over five feet tall, with olive skin and dark, heavily lidded eyes. Her face, a long oval tapering to a sharply jutting chin, seemed vaguely elfin. Her eyebrows, plucked into thin arcs, made her look like an old-fashioned glamour girl.”

Sherwin took note of the items that Taylor had reported missing, including a large refrigerator, and concluded the interaction as he usually did—with a promise to follow up, should he find more information. But he left the scene with a suspicion about the woman and her missing refrigerator. His quest to understand what happened would begin his interactions with politicians and reporters to highlight the crimes of the ‘Welfare Queen’. 

This encounter sets up Taylor’s heart-wrenching story—her triumphs, her tribulations, and her many more interactions with the police. Levin frames the story by teaching us about Taylor’s misdeeds before we learn about her abusive childhood, and in doing so, implies that her tumultuous childhood contributed to her crimes. This structure lends itself to intrigue, but not to clarification. In the first half of the book, which deals with Taylor’s adult life, the reader is left wondering why she committed the crimes she did. The latter half of the book is much more comprehensive, bringing up themes of race, gender, poverty, family, and acceptance that are lacking in the first part of the book. 

According to her relatives, Linda Taylor was born Martha Louise White to a white mother and white father in Tennessee. Taylor’s early childhood was filled with falsehoods from her family about who her father was, until at age six she was expelled from an all-white school and her mother Lydia White could no longer lie about her child’s heritage. Years later, both her grandmother and her uncle would divulge that Martha Louise White was half Black. But in the South in the 1920s, the prospect of a biracial child could have indicted her mother for a felony, and so Taylor’s family seemed content to tell her and the rest of the world that she was white.

After Taylor was expelled, White left her with Jim and Virginia Collins, a Black couple. While family members claimed Taylor’s location became increasingly hard to pin down as she grew older, it might have been because they made it clear she wasn’t welcome at home. 

Taylor’s vagabond childhood and clear rejection from her mother’s family seemed to be the catalyzing events for her crimes, which could be seen as a form of self-preservation. Despite the harsh description of what her family put her through—sending her off to various places and refusing to let her into their homes, ostensibly because of her race—there is little time dedicated in the book to those events which would leave her with a disregard for others. Instead, when we first meet Taylor, she is already a fully formed adult committing crimes. While this makes for an intriguing story, the reader might be better served by a more linear timeline. 

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After stints in California and Michigan as a teenager and young adult, Taylor settled in Illinois. Through various schemes involving her daughter’s children and her own, she perpetuated welfare fraud. She used her previous marriage with a veteran to defraud the VA, as well as child assistance programs, for her own gain. She would claim multiple imaginary children to do so, and ended up defrauding an estimated total of $40,000 from welfare programs in Illinois.  

In addition to her welfare fraud, Taylor was also involved in other very serious criminal actions. Two of the people mentioned in the book that suffered at her hands were her former husband Sherman Ray and her former friend Patricia Parks. Through interviews with family and friends, Levin finds that both of their lives were lost because of circumstances perpetrated by Taylor. In the first instance, Parks died by a barbiturate overdose, a substance she had been taking under Taylor’s advice. In the second instance, Ray died after being shot by an associate of Taylor’s, Willtrue Loyd, according to Ray’s best friend. Yet the prosecutors and politicians who viciously condemned Taylor for her fraud never charged her with the tragic deaths of these two people: the focus on Taylor in newspapers and stump speeches was always on her welfare fraud. 

Though some welfare fraud was committed by copycats of Taylor, Levin notes that the state and city employees which oversaw welfare programs also deserved close scrutiny. “While the public imagination latched on to the story of Linda Taylor and her scamming ways, reporter George Bliss wanted to clarify that rampant welfare abuse could be perpetuated by anyone.” But Taylor’s story was flashier and politically advantageous, so other angles often were overlooked.

Among the various agencies that Taylor stole from, the most illuminating example was a program called Aid to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC). This program was started as Aid to Dependant Children (ADC), tucked into the Social Security Act of 1935, one of many laws passed as part of the New Deal. Despite the fact that the law was meant to be a social safety net, not everyone was included. As scholar Dorothy E. Roberts notes in her book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, “Even the ADC was created primarily for white mothers, who were not expected to work. Black mothers, who had always been in the paid labor force in far higher numbers than white mothers, were considered inappropriate clients of a system for the unemployable.”

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement fought for the rights of Black citizens to receive aid similar to their white counterparts, and as Roberts writes, “secured entitlements to benefits, raised benefit levels, and increased the availability of benefits to families headed by women.” Roberts continues, quoting historian Gwendolyn Mink: “‘By 1967 a welfare caseload that had once been 86 percent white had become 46 percent nonwhite.’ The majority of Black women nevertheless continued to work paid jobs and the majority of welfare recipients remained white.”

But this hard-fought win became moot as benefits from the AFDC started to dwindle. The Reagan era brought massive cuts to welfare, citing Taylor as  woman in Chicago who used eighty aliases and stole $154,000 from public aid. Although Reagan could never prove the figure, the story resonated with an angry American public. Politicians and journalists had advertised the image of a freeloading, welfare cheat—and this person, unlike the white administrators and low-level bureaucrats who also took from the pot, was Black. The white middle-class was furious.

Reagan told stories on the campaign trail—or rather the same story— about Taylor making off scot-free with a hundred thousand dollars. While the truth was less politically expedient—the figure was closer to four aliases and $40,000—it pleased crowds and got a point across: America needed to stop the Linda Taylors of the world. And while Reagan lost the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976, he would win the White House four years later and capitalized on this fear-mongering in 1982. 

As Levin details in The Queen, “Congress ultimately approved $35 billion in cuts for the fiscal year 1982, $25 billion of which came from initiatives that affected the poor. An estimated 408,000 of the country’s 3.9 million AFDC households lost their benefits entirely, while roughly one million people lost access to food stamps.” This loss of benefits was devastating to poor families everywhere, but media coverage of the poor Black “welfare cheats” that was prevalent soon became eclipsed by another narrative. Sympathetic stories about their white counterparts were soon featured in greater number . Levin argues that “this dramatic shift couldn’t be explained by actual demographic changes: White Americans made up 66 percent of the nation’s poor in 1972 and 1973, and 68 percent in 1982 and 1983.”

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a law that transformed the AFDC into Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). TANF was much more onerous to receive than AFDC, and as the title suggests, not nearly as easy to keep. The program has work requirements for parents and two-year limits on benefits received, as well as five-year lifetime limits. While having fewer citizens on welfare is an admirable goal, this version of TANF did not include job training or any substantive welfare-to-work initiatives that would increase the income of families living in poverty. Instead, President Clinton and Vice President Gore tried to create their own initiatives. Despite this program and an initial decline in poverty, the amount of Americans living in poverty has mostly stayed the same, fluctuating about five percentage points since 1965. 

As in the original version of the AFDC, the TANF was intended to be difficult for poor families to navigate. This reflected a new age in welfare, where a lack of social services was supposed to motivate poor citizens to work. Where it was previously viewed as a social safety net, welfare was now framed as a shove into the workforce. 

While most people conjure up the idea for any kind of reform to be thought up in the offices of Washington D.C., TANF was the result of years of welfare reform policy that started in fear of Linda Taylor in her mink coat and Cadillac.  While the rules changed for AFDC—an aid program primarily meant for women—other programs that Taylor ripped off have appeared to stay the same. The VA’s Dependency and Indemnity Compensation was one of the places she swindled by trying to get benefits for a child who did not have any ailments, and yet this fund has remained free of the work requirements and a five-year lifetime stipulations that have defined the newest incarnation of the AFDC. 

So many poor Americans weren’t Linda Taylor: they didn’t drive Cadillacs or scheme to defraud the government. They were citizens who, for various reasons, could not find gainful employment and needed help from the government. As the “Welfare Queen”, Taylor became a malignant stereotype for all poor Black welfare recipients, her individuality rarely recognized . Yet when Taylor reached old age and eventually passed away in 2002, her death went almost unmentioned.  There was no media blitz, only a small gathering of family that remembered her. The once infamous woman became unknown in her later life and death. Yet the implications of her notoriety would impact so many who never knew her name. 

While the story of Linda Taylor is at once bewildering and tragic, there are millions of untold stories of people who suffered because of her infamy, and we may never know their names. But by reading about Taylor’s life and the perplexing person she was, we may be able to understand people who live today in poverty. We can meet their challenges with compassion, and not lionize or demonize them, but see them as Linda was never seen in the eyes of the public—as a full person. 

Josh Levin, The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth. $14.99. Little, Brown. 432 pages.

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Siri Chilukuri is a journalist and student at The New School in New York. She currently lives in South Loop. This is her first story for the Weekly.

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