The Queen, by Josh Levin

The phrase “welfare queen” has been around all my life, but I never knew where it came from. I never really thought about it other than to reject the term as racist and demeaning. I would hear it thrown around by politicians and people on the news as shorthand for people who didn’t really exist. In The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, Josh Levin shows us the complicated history of the phrase and the even more complicated life behind it.

Linda Taylor—as Levin calls the woman at the center of the welfare queen hysteria—had almost as many birth dates as she had names. Her whole life was a series of lies made out of paper and bluff. But it wasn’t until a chance second meeting with a Chicago burglary detective that the wheels started to come off, legally speaking. Until 1974, no one was after Linda Taylor. Why would they? The crimes she was later convicted of were so bizarre and so new that no agency had jurisdiction to prosecute them. Still, once news broke in the Chicago Tribune of the woman with dozens of aliases stealing who knew how much money from a variety of social services, she became a national scandal. But as Levin finds out, Taylor might not have even been investigated for what might be the worst of her crimes: murder.

The Queen is roughly divided into three sections. In the first third, is a sometimes hard-to-follow description of Taylor’s life in the 1970s, when she was identified, investigated, prosecuted, and convicted for welfare fraud. Levin also covers the press coverage that made Taylor a watchword for a nation-wide movement to reduce welfare benefits and make it harder to get those benefits in the first place. While the actual legal case becomes a bit of an anti-climax (because of the difficulty in even proving who Taylor was and because of the lack of clear criminal law to make what she did a truly punishable offense), the legend of the welfare queen turned into something that helped elect Republican politicians who wanted to dismantle America’s social safety net. As I read this part, I was reminded of the early sections of A Square Meal, a book about food and economic relief during the Great Depression. In both The Queen and A Square Meal, the authors reveal an almost sadistic, deeply un-charitable history of welfare in America in which recipients are shamed, denigrated, and not really given the help they need to make it through hard times unscathed.

Linda Taylor, 1977 (Image via Wikipedia)

The last two parts of The Queen attempt to trace Taylor’s life before and after she hit the national headlines. To me, these were the most interesting parts of the book. I had learned a little about Taylor’s life and crimes from the author’s 2013 article for Slate, but The Queen goes deeper. As it turns out, Taylor’s life is incredibly strange. I found it very sad, too, but I never pitied Taylor. Although she had plenty of strikes against her from the beginning—biracial heritage, a poor sharecropping family, a mother who farmed her out to other people to raise—Taylor causes so much suffering around her that any pity I felt was completely erased by the sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the person we know as Linda Taylor. There is compelling evidence that she may have killed at least one person and that she kidnapped children more than once.

I picked up The Queen because I wanted to know what that something was. It’s a question that Levin never really finds an answer for. Taylor lied so often and for so long that it’s hard to tell what her real motivations were. In the last part of the book, which describes Taylor’s final battles with the legal system and her institution after being found incompetent to stand trial, made me wonder if Taylor had been suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness for her entire life. I even wondered if maybe Taylor had contracted syphilis from her days as a sex worker in the 1940s and had never been treated for it. Perhaps she had lied about everything because she really couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t? Unfortunately, there is too much we don’t know about Taylor to say whether she was deliberately criminal, if she just couldn’t help herself, or some combination of the two.

Levin’s commentary on how politicians and ordinary Americans turned on the welfare system does a lot of explain why Taylor was such a flashpoint of controversy, even if he can’t really show us who Taylor really was (character-wise, he actually does find out her birth name and origins). I was also deeply impressed by the sheer scope of Levin’s archival research. It’s extraordinary what he was able to put together from newspaper stories, legal proceedings, and Taylor’s weird document trail. But above all, The Queen shows us that the welfare queen is a figment of the American imagination. Yes, there are criminals who take advantage of the system, but the vast majority of people on welfare are just trying to get back on their feet. Taylor’s outsize impact on the welfare system may be one of her biggest crimes (you know, apart from the murder and kidnapping), one that no one really took a look at until Levin started digging.

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