Two Really Interesting Takes on the “Welfare Queen”

One is a short comparison between what families with kids under 18 spend on average household items, families receiving government assistance spend a whole lot less on average than families not on assistance. So if your Fox addled uncle trots out people on food stamps driving Cadillacs and eating lobster at the holiday table you can hit him with this and also with this debunking of the stereotypes with inconvenient facts.

But even more interesting, though definitely a long read, is this piece from Slate where they tracked down the facts behind Reagan’s apocryphal welfare queen. Turns out she wasn’t so apocryphal, but, as you could imagine, Reagan left out most of the story

“In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,” the former California governor declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” As soon as he quoted that dollar amount, the crowd gasped.

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.

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.

Reagan used this woman to advance an agenda that scoffs at government compassion and says there are scores of people who are making you the sucker if you pay your taxes and play by the rules. It appealed to the innate greed in conservatives by saying you can save more of “your money” on taxes and actually feel superior about cutting the social safety net as well because conservatives are the ones really helping the poor, by not helping them. This sociopathology continues unabated in today’s even friskier GOP.  

But the story here wasn’t that such people defrauding the government for welfare benefits don’t exist – they did and do, but they’re rare (it’s really hard to do this today) and they are brazen criminals, not small time liars getting extra benefits they don’t deserve. This woman was a flat out menace to society on so many levels that welfare fraud was the least of it.

One of the clear differences between liberals and conservatives is on issues like this where liberals would rather have a few Linda Taylors so long as children and veterans and the elderly and those down on their luck can get the help they need to keep life and soul together and conservatives would deny the good people to keep even 1 bad guy from profiting. Attitudes towards the death penalty are a related phenomenon where cons are willing to kill innocent people in order to exact revenge on the evil and liberals would rather let everyone live than ever take an innocent life mistakenly.

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