The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Piecing together the real woman behind Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’

Lisbeth B. Schorr, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, is the author of “Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage” and “Common Purpose.” She is at work on her next book, “The Missing Evidence,” which explores the uses and misuses of evidence in social policy.

First as governor of California, then as president, Ronald Reagan set out to tear down supports for poor people through a propaganda campaign to discredit needy Americans on welfare. He spread the legend of a figure who became known as the “welfare queen.” In dramatic fashion, Reagan depicted her as a high-rolling Chicago grifter who used 80 names, 30 addresses and 15 telephone numbers to collect not just cash welfare payments but also food stamps, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits.

This portrait of the Cadillac-driving, fur-draped welfare queen hardened into a stereotype that was deployed for years to erode benefits for the poor, with brutal effectiveness. The legendary character, however, was not a product of a speechwriter’s overheated imagination but a real person. Almost five decades later, Josh Levin painstakingly pieced together the bizarre and dramatic story of Linda Taylor, in which fraud appears to be the most innocuous of her endeavors.

“The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth” reads like a detective story. Yet it serves up serious and timely questions about the way stereotypes can overpower evidence in shaping policy. It examines how political mythmaking left poor families without needed aid and contributed to a shocking increase in the number of U.S. children growing up in deep poverty — a lesson with profound resonance today.

Linda Taylor, one of many names she used, assumed a variety of racial identities (black, white, Hispanic, Native American, Asian) and professions, and claimed a succession of husbands. Yet in Reagan’s stories and in the public mind, the implication was that she was black — a point hardly incidental in the creation of a fundamentally racist myth about welfare recipients in a country where the majority of them were white.

Levin, an editor at Slate, investigated who Taylor really was and the scope of her crimes. He searched more carefully through the dizzying details of her life than anyone in authority ever had, drawing on police reports, court files, FBI investigations and newspaper coverage. He discovered a woman who was far worse than the mere welfare queen Reagan created for public consumption. Levin makes a provocative, if not conclusive, case that Taylor, who died in 2002, was guilty not just of welfare fraud but also of homicide, kidnapping and baby trafficking.

So how was it that she served time only for defrauding the welfare system? Levin discovered that other than one police investigator who was ultimately pulled off the case, nobody seemed motivated to learn the full extent of Taylor’s crimes. Though the Chicago Tribune wrote about her purported connections to a kidnapping and a homicide, the paper treated the suspicions as colorful details — odd facts to embellish the shocking welfare queen story. “A murder in Chicago is mundane,” Levin wrote in a 2013 Slate article, which served as the gen­esis of his book. “A sumptuously attired woman stealing from John Q. Taxpayer is a menace.” He concluded that Taylor was operating in a climate in which stealing welfare money took precedence over kidnapping and homicide because politicians and journalists had whipped the public into such a frenzy over welfare fraud that it dominated the attention of investigators.

By the time Reagan entered the White House, the propaganda war on welfare and its recipients was already in full force. Beginning in the mid-1960s, perceptions of public assistance became more racialized. “In his influential 1965 report ‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,’ ” Levin writes, “assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan framed public aid as an explicitly racial issue. Aid to Dependent Children had been ‘established in 1935 principally to care for widows and orphans,’ Moynihan wrote, but ‘the steady expansion of this welfare program, as of public assistance programs in general, can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States.’ ”

While the proportion of black families receiving public assistance remained constant into the 1970s, UCLA professor Martin Gilens found that the proportion of blacks in photos illustrating newsmagazine stories about poor Americans rose from 27 percent in 1964 to 70 percent in 1972.

The assault on the safety net only accelerated. By 1976, 89 percent of Americans believed that “the criteria for getting on welfare are not tight enough,” according to a Louis Harris poll that Levin cites. Eighty-five percent thought that “too many people on welfare cheat by getting money they are not entitled to.”

Several years later, Reagan asserted that public aid programs were at the root of America’s social ills. In his 1986 State of the Union address, he blamed the programs for “the breakdown of the family” and for “child abandonment, horrible crimes, and deteriorating schools.” He drew on the influential social scientist Charles Murray, an advocate of eliminating the welfare state, to support his gospel that the problem that needed solving was not poverty — it was welfare. By 1994 the Department of Health and Human Services had collected data revealing that “welfare is considered odious by every demographic subgroup.”

Reagan’s disdain for public aid personified by his welfare queen prepared the ground for the Clinton administration’s swing of the wrecking ball. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed welfare legislation described by Levin as “transforming the safety net in ways that, a little more than a decade earlier, only Charles Murray had dared to imagine.” The new law removed national definitions of eligibility and capped federal money to states. It allowed states discretion in implementing the law, except that they had to require recipients to find work after two years of cash assistance. The law also cut off benefits to most families with dependent children after a maximum of five years, or less at the state’s discretion. At a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Clinton declared, “Today we are ending welfare as we know it.”

Tearing apart much of America’s safety net has had a devastating effect. The number of people receiving cash assistance has tumbled from more than 14 million when Clinton took office to less than 3 million now. While some poor and near-poor people were able to find jobs between 1996 and 2000 in a strong economy, researchers Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer found that the number of families with children living in extreme poverty more than doubled between 1996 and 2011 — a particularly disturbing statistic given the lifelong impact of poverty on children’s development.

It’s hard to read this book without wondering what America might look like today if Reagan hadn’t been so successful in convincing a majority of Americans that welfare fraud was a greater problem than poverty. Perhaps Clinton, surely one of the most persuasive presidents of our lifetime, might have refuted Reagan’s mythmaking? Could he have convinced Americans that the evidence showed that widespread poverty, especially among families with young children, was a greater threat to the country’s future than an occasional welfare cheat? Could he have made good on his promise to “end welfare as we know it” — but with reforms that would have actually lifted struggling families out of poverty?

Levin’s brilliant exploration of the politics of welfare reform teaches an essential lesson. When myths and stereotypes predominate, facts, logic and evidence lose out. The myths of the welfare queen, “super-predators” in our inner cities and migrant gang members pouring across our southern border have clouded debate for too long. Levin’s story calls upon us to think harder.

Levin concludes his gripping investigation of Reagan’s and, ultimately, Clinton’s roles in creating today’s harsh climate for the poor with this compelling insight: “Welfare was complicated. Americans were in the mood for simple answers, even if those answers didn’t happen to be true.”

By Josh Levin

Little, Brown. 418 pp. $29