Few things got—and still get—under the skin of liberals more than Ronald Reagan’s famous use of the term “welfare queen” in his 1976 campaign (he didn’t much use this theme in 1980, curiously enough). Paul Krugman thinks it was a “minor” case of welfare fraud, while between the foam flecks of Chris Matthews you can make out that Reagan was a raaaccist for mentioning the subject.
So kudos to Josh Levin and Slate for setting the record straight. Reagan’s “welfare queen” was a real person, and her name was Linda Taylor.
Though Reagan was known to stretch the truth, he did not invent that woman in Chicago. Her name was Linda Taylor, and it was the Chicago Tribune, not the GOP politician, who dubbed her the “welfare queen.” It was the Tribune, too, that lavished attention on Taylor’s jewelry, furs, and Cadillac—all of which were real. . . As the Tribune and other outlets stayed on the story, those figures continued to rise. Reporters noted that Linda Taylor had used as many as 80 names, and that she’d received at least $150,000—in illicit welfare cash, the numbers that Ronald Reagan would cite on the campaign trail in 1976.
Note the important detail that it was the Tribune—a board certified member of the mainstream media—that coined the term “welfare queen.” But I guess you can’t quote the media when it departs from liberal orthodoxy.
Turns out Taylor’s welfare fraud was the least of her crimes, as Levin’s story explains:
When I set out in search of Linda Taylor, I hoped to find the real story of the woman who played such an outsize role in American politics—who she was, where she came from, and what her life was like before and after she became the national symbol of unearned prosperity. What I found was a woman who destroyed lives, someone far more depraved than even Ronald Reagan could have imagined. In the 1970s alone, Taylor was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking. The detective who tried desperately to put her away believes she’s responsible for one of Chicago’s most legendary crimes, one that remains unsolved to this day. Welfare fraud was likely the least of the welfare queen’s offenses.
There’s more to this amazing story, and Levin deserves a Pulitzer nomination at the very least. I doubt he’ll get one. It’s a rare instance of someone in the media chasing down the other side of the story. In the 1980s the media was quick to put on the nightly news every sympathetic person who might be adversely affected by a budget cut to a social program, but seldom (the Tribune story about Taylor was a rare exception) reported about welfare fraud or bureaucratic waste.
Was Taylor an isolated or “minor” abuse, as Krugman says? Levin reports:
Linda Taylor’s welfare fraud trial set off a tidal wave of prosecutions. After securing the welfare queen’s conviction, Assistant State’s Attorney James Piper was placed in charge of a special welfare fraud unit. In its first year, Piper’s crew indicted 241 people.
Levin pulls his punches at the end: “It’s impossible to define the exact scope of welfare fraud in America then or now.”
I’ve got a good hunch about this. Liberals don’t even think this is a valid question, which is precisely the problem.