Who Was the Original “Welfare Queen?”: Review of Josh Levin’s The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth

How do you tell a story about a real-life, embodied individual who inspired a stereotype, without reducing her life to fit into the same trope you are trying to upend? How do you uncover the exception that proved the rule without reifying the label you acknowledge is pernicious?

I’m not sure, and Josh Levin sure doesn’t know either.

What I do know, however, is that if I was writing Levin’s The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, I wouldn’t structure the narrative as he has. The book purportedly reclaims the story of Linda Taylor, the “original welfare queen” used by Ronald Reagan as stump speech fodder in his primary bid against President Gerald Ford in 1976. However, rather than centering on Taylor herself, the first third of the book follows the perspectives of those individuals who sought to bring Taylor to justice. Later sections detail her experience in probate court as she sought to falsely claim an inheritance, and then, finally, reveals her backstory as a mixed race child growing up in part of the South where miscegenation was not only socially unacceptable but dangerous. Sacrificing any attempt to portray Taylor as a complicated human being, Levin tells his story as a law-and-order chronicle, mimicking the detectives, journalists, lawyers, and politicians he criticizes for caring more about the image they built than for seeking the actual truth. The result is a page-turner, but one that repeatedly loses sight of its purpose. And frankly, the story of how her crimes were discovered is less interesting than the story of who Taylor was herself might have been.

The Queen by Josh by Levin. (©Little, Brown & Company).

Linda Taylor is portrayed as a singularly awful human being. An unrelenting swindler, and very possibly a domestic abuser, child trafficker, kidnapper, and even murderer, Taylor got away with far more illicit behavior than she was accused of committing. Levin’s depiction is quite similar to the media portrait of her that he criticizes—in one example, Taylor was characterized by journalists as a “shape-shifting, fur-wearing con artist,” capable of eluding clear racial categorization in a racially stratified society by “chang[ing] from black to white to Latin with a mere change of a wig.”1 This ability to transgress racial boundaries was perhaps just as objectionable to her contemporaries as her criminality. But who was she, really?

Levin’s narrative strategy undermines his goal of showing how exceptional Taylor really was. He claims that she was made “the fall guy” for a system of aid “whose failings were monumental” but also “for everyone who’d lost his job, or had a hefty tax bill, or was angry about his lot in life and the direction of his country.” In addition to taking on this symbolic role, however, Levin continues that “she was guilty as hell, and she was someone it felt good to punish.”2 Further, “Taylor’s mere existence gave credence to a slew of pernicious stereotypes about poor people and black women. If one welfare queen walked the earth, then surely others did, too.”3 This doesn’t challenge the stereotype: the exception has proven the rule.

Levin’s account leaves many questions unanswered. His first protagonist, a detective, wondered if Taylor acted alone or if she was part of or aided by a larger criminal organization. Unfortunately, we are never given a definitive answer, or a clear portrait of her connection to these broader criminal networks (although one of her teenage children did seemingly join a gang). If she was a child trafficker, as is suggested, whom was she trafficking children to or from? The children she claimed as her own when she was arrested by Sherwin in 1974 turned out to be her grandchildren; Levin’s earlier depiction of their questionable origins turns out to have been a ploy to deepen the mystery surrounding Taylor’s notoriety at the expense of giving us a straightforward explanation. Nor are we given a satisfying explanation of how Taylor learned to game the public aid and legal systems of multiple states and localities: navigating various eligibility criteria for numerous programs, forging signatures, utilizing aliases, playing on caseworkers’ sympathies, faking hospital and public school records, etc. We are given descriptions of Taylor’s various henchmen or marks, in Levin’s terms, but not an understanding of how Taylor herself was transformed from a neglected, uneducated mixed-race child growing up in the Jim Crow south to a savvy criminal mastermind capable of frustrating local and federal attempts to bring her to justice. We are also given multiple versions of Taylor’s biography, including her presumably manufactured claim to be the daughter of an illegal gambling tycoon in order to inherit his fortune, but with so many incomplete fragments, half-truths, and outright lies, I wasn’t convinced that any account was more or less convincing than the others. Why, in fact, does he persist in calling her Linda Taylor, which was neither her name at birth nor on her death certificate?

Linda Taylor, 1977. (Wikimedia Commons)

Levin’s use of the scholarly literature to build the context for Taylor’s life and crimes reflects his decision to tell this narrative as a true-crime story. His note on sources credits Martin Gilens and Julily Kohler-Hausmann’s important works on the origins of welfare fraud investigations, but not histories that center the experiences of welfare recipients or the welfare rights movement, like those written by Felicia Kornbluh, Marisa Chappell, Premilla Nadasen, or Ange-Marie Hancock — a major missing piece of the contextual puzzle.4 He also pontificates on the public perception of welfare recipients as undeserving, but would have benefited from Linda Gordon’s groundbreaking work, particularly her discussion of the “least eligibility principle.” As she explains, the architects of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), or welfare as it was commonly called, believed that giving to the undeserving poor would undermine their work ethic and thus the entire social order. This fear draws from the perceived distinction between the poor and the pauper. As Gordon explains, “poverty is an economic condition — lack of money — while pauperism is an internal, moral, or psychological problem. Pauperism might be caused by poverty, but not all poor people were paupers.”5

The potential for telling Linda Taylor’s story in 2019 is thrilling. Given the moral imperatives of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movement, it’s critical to center the voices of women and communities of color that have long been brushed aside and misrepresented. Levin’s choice to center his narrative on the white men who brought Taylor to national attention, however, betrays this opportunity. He wants to have it both ways: to criticize the usage of the “welfare queen” label as un-nuanced, yet tell this story from the perspective of those who “used the term uncritically and unrelentingly.”6 The Queen is less a profile of Taylor than a profile of how the people she deluded tried to discover her identity and repeatedly failed. The “queen” remains as elusive as ever.

Notes

  1. Josh Levin, The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth (New York: Little, Brown, 2019), x. Return to text.
  2. Levin, The Queen, 138. Return to text.
  3. Levin, The Queen, 152. Return to text.
  4. Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink, Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019); Felicia Kornbluh, The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Marisa Chappell, The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty, and Politics in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors, (New York: Routledge, 2005); Ange-Marie Hancock, The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen (New York: New York University Press, 2004). Return to text.
  5. Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890–1935 (New York: Free Press, 1994): 7. Return to text.
  6. As Levin describes Chicago Tribune journalist George Bliss, 55. Return to text.

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