The true story behind the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype

The true story behind the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype


>>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, HAD BEEN ACCUSED OF EXPLOITING THIS IMAGE IS A KIND OF RACIST DOG WHISTLE. MEANWHILE, THE ORIGINAL WELFARE QUEEN THAT REAGAN USED AS A 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.>>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.>>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?>>REAGAN WAS LOOKING FOR KIND OF OUTRAGEOUS STORIES ABOUT WELFARE. AND THIS IDEA THAT THERE WERE WELFARE CHEATS OUT THERE WAS SOMETHING THAT CREATED OUTRAGE.>>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 NON-EXISTENT DECEASED VETERANS HUSBANDS, AS WELL AS WELFARE. HER TAX-FREE CASH INCOME ALONE HAS BEEN RUNNING $150,000 A YEAR.>>HE DIDN’T SAY THE PHRASE “WELFARE QUEEN” IN HIS SPEECHES, 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.>>I HAVE A PLAN TO END WELFARE AS WE KNOW IT, TO BREAK THE CYCLE OF WELFARE DEPENDENCY.>>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 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.>>Sreenivasan: TELL US A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT HER. I MEAN, SHE WAS KIND OF A RACIAL CHAMELEON, ALMOST.>>IN THE ’70s, SHE WAS 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 HER, YOU KNOW, 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.>>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?>>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, YOU KNOW, 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.>>Sreenivasan: 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.>>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’S A 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.>>Sreenivasan: SO, WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT HER TODAY? DOES SHE EXIST ANYWHERE? DID SHE DIE? DOES SHE HAVE FAMILY?>>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.>>Sreenivasan: JOSH, WHY DO THIS STORY? WHY SPEND YEARS RESEARCHING THIS? WHAT DREW YOU TO IT?>>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.>>Sreenivasan: ALL RIGHT, THE BOOK IS CALLED “THE QUEEN.” JOSH LEVIN, THANKS SO MUCH.>>THANK YOU.

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