If you use the OneLook metadictionary (see the link in my signature at the bottom of this posting) to look up the term welfare queen
, you may be surprised to find that despite its four-decade-long existence, there is currently not a single match among the numerous dictionaries that OneLook draws on for its definitions. The sole hit is provided by Wikipedia
, which explains the term thus:
Welfare queen is a pejorative phrase used in the United States to refer to people who are accused of collecting excessive welfare payments through fraud or manipulation1.
From a detailed article by Josh Levin
which recently appeared in Slate
magazine, it appears that the expression was first used in print by the Chicago Tribune
in October 1974, while publishing a series of articles by the journalist George Bliss that began to go to press in late September of the same year. In the course of pursuing the Republican Party nomination for the 1976 presidential election, and to make one of his campaign issues resonate more effectively with the sympathies of the public, as early as January 1976 Ronald Reagan had seized on the example of Linda Taylor, the woman the Chicago Tribune
had dubbed a 'welfare queen' while exposing the failure of Chicago's public authorities to take seriously Taylor's egregiously (not to say flamboyantly) remunerative taxpayer-funded frauds and other alleged misdeeds.
Reagan was trying to demonstrate that fraud was rampant on the part of those receiving public welfare, hoping to appeal to the base of his party's voters as a future president who would stamp out such flagrant misuse of American taxpayers' hard-earned cash. In a 1976 radio commentary
he recited a list of assertions about Taylor's actions and material assets (but without referring to her by name), and strongly implied that she was typical of those who were abusing the welfare system; though in fact, as an individual she was unique, not only in the degree to which she had been exploiting the public purse, but in many other respects also.
In passing, it may be noted that Reagan failed to gain the '76 Republican nomination, which he lost to Gerald Ford. Meanwhile, though Linda Taylor was first indicted in late 1974, her lawyer succeeded in delaying her trial until March 1977. She was convicted on a much-reduced list of fraud-related charges, and was sentenced to two to six years for theft and one for perjury (the terms to be served consecutively). She began doing her time on 16 February 1978, but was out of jail by 1983 at the latest (no-one can say exactly when, because it seems the relevant prison records have been lost).
Josh Levin's article shines a probing light on the political and economic context in which Linda Taylor's 'welfare queen' epithet was coined, and also reveals that the truth concerning the nature and activities of the woman at the centre of the Chicago Tribune'
s articles is far more complicated than anybody at the time (save Taylor herself) knew. While researching the extraordinary story of the inspirer of the 'welfare queen' moniker, Levin soon found that 'Linda Taylor' was merely one pseudonym among dozens.
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.
In the course of his narrative, Josh Levin exposes multiple bigamies, impersonations, thefts, frauds, child abductions, probable child trafficking, child neglect, and two instances of what there is good evidence to believe were murders that Taylor had committed; crimes so varied and numerous, and so effectively obscured by their perpetrator, that their true extent can never be fully known. Even her death certificate, dated 18 April 2002, misrepresents who she really was:
For Linda Taylor, documents were never simple accountings of the truth. Pieces of paper always told a story—about her identity, her husbands, her children, her parentage, what was owed to her, and who owed it—and that story was usually self-serving, contradictory, and false. That didn’t change just because she was dead.
Her death certificate, compiled from information provided by her daughter Sandra Smith, is a blend of truth, lies, and conjecture. The welfare queen’s name is rendered as Constance Loyd, which it wasn’t. Her date of birth is listed as Dec. 25, 1934. It wasn’t. She’s described as a homemaker, which she wasn’t. Her father and mother are given as Lawrence Wakefield and Edith Elizabeth Jarvis. They weren’t. Her race is white—the same as in the 1930 and 1940 census. Among her itemized medical conditions is bipolar disorder. That may be true, or it may be a fabrication.
Along the way, Levin also highlights the unedifying spectacle of Ronald Reagan's disingenuous political opportunism in relation to the facts and issues revolving around public welfare for the poor; the lackadaisical approach that characterized the Chicago police department's investigation of Taylor's crimes; the administrative failures of Chicago's other public officials to investigate Taylor, as well as their mediocre administration of the welfare system in general; the Chicago Tribune'
s own inadvertent role in torpedoing the efforts of the only Chicago police officers who were trying to piece together all the numerous pieces of the highly complex Linda Taylor puzzle, namely Jack Sherwin and his partner Jerry Kush; the trail of broken or annihilated lives that Linda Taylor left in her wake; and the adverse and far-reaching long-term cultural, political and economic impacts2
of the 'welfare queen' narrative trope in relation to America's most impoverished citizens, with the adoption of both local and national policy models which one can fairly say have been copied elsewhere in the world with similarly dismal results3
In her thorough and eloquent review of Chicago's public welfare policy reforms, The Crime of Survival,
the social historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann offers the following description of the cultural connotations of the expression welfare queen:
It was Chicago journalists who originally crowned Taylor the "welfare queen." The moniker stuck, although welfare fraud was hardly Taylor's only legal transgression. The Chicago Tribune recounted tales of Taylor's alleged robberies, bigamy, and kidnapping, and told how she had collected fees as a "voodoo doctor" and tried to claim the inheritance of a policy runner who had died with $700,000 in his home. Despite these diverse charges against Taylor, welfare fraud remained her defining feature, and the press always referred to her as the welfare queen.
Ronald Reagan seized on the caricature, stripped it of its context and peculiarity, and gave it national visibility. He railed against welfare bureaucracies by telling crowds about the Chicago welfare queen at almost every campaign stop during his failed 1976 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. His account morphed over time, although he usually assessed the cost to the state at $150,000 and fixed the number of aliases at around 80.
Connecting "queen" to popular images of welfare recipients symbolically transmitted multiple messages with derogatory racial, gender and class subtexts. Surrounded by extravagant luxuries and services, queens are assumed to perform neither caregiving work nor waged labor. Linking these images to welfare recipients discredited poor women's voices and insinuated that their claims of material hardship were disingenuous and malicious. By evoking socially unsettling images of politically powerful women, the phrase welfare queen also had racial connotations. It implicitly referenced popular beliefs, associated most frequently with the Moynihan Report
, which attributed the "pathology of the Black family" to its alleged matriarchal structure. Since it could instantly convey multiple stereotypes, it should not be surprising that the moniker welfare queen quickly gained such currency4
Both Kohler-Hausmann's analysis and Levin's article make for fascinating, if lengthy, reading. But then, neither a life story as murky and complicated as that of Linda Taylor, nor its manifold repercussions, could ever be summed up in just a few paragraphs.
1 Wikipedia helpfully notes, "This article is about welfare recipients in the US. For state handouts to the British Queen, see Civil list".
2 "The Crime of Survival": fraud prosecutions, community surveillance, and the original "welfare queen", Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly, Journal of Social History (Winter 2007): 329-354. Reproduced online at The Free Library,
Code: Select all
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/"The Crime of Survival": fraud prosecutions, community surveillance,...-a0173749654
[/size]3 This has certainly been the case in Britain, most notably under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and then to varying degrees under the subsequent unbroken succession of similarly Reagan-aping imitators, for whom slashing publicly-funded benefit entitlements and introducing a variety of administrative measures to make life increasingly more difficult for so-called 'benefit scroungers' appears to have been almost a badge of honour.
4 See note 2 above. The embedded link to Wikipedia's article on the Moynihan Report was inserted by me, not by the author of the cited text.