Slate has an incredible investigation of the life of Linda Taylor, former President Ronald Reagan's infamous "Welfare Queen," on Thursday. Josh Levin's reporting shows that neither Republicans nor Democrats were right about Taylor.
When Reagan was running for President in 1976, he told the story of a Welfare Queen who "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 Levin notes, Democrats have since dismissed the story, saying it was basically invented to play on the racial resentment of working-class whites. The New York Times' Paul Krugman has called it "the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen [was] a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud."
But as Levin discovered, the Welfare Queen was real. She just isn't an example of the typical person on welfare. She was a singular monster. Taylor died in 2002.
While 1970s news stories about Taylor, who has more aliases than you can count, focused on her Cadillac and various attempts to game the system, she was actually a much more dangerous criminal. According to Levin's investigation, she regularly bought and sold babies, some of whom have never been found. Those that knew her and lived with her think she was responsible for the famous Fronczak baby kidnapping during the 1960s.
She was also accused of murder. Patricia Parks-Lee, a child that Taylor nannied in the 1970s, insists that Taylor slowly killed her mother by feeding her barbiturates.
Levin explains how these allegations were buried at the time:
In the 1970s, it was possible for the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Defender to make Linda Taylor a national figure while her specific exploits remained local knowledge. This is how, in the days before the Web abetted the flow of information, Ronald Reagan could tell stories about a real woman and be accused of conjuring a fictional character. And it’s how, after Taylor’s brief window of infamy closed, all the disturbing allegations that had been raised in the mid-1970s just faded away.
To the Right, Taylor was an egregious example of the broken welfare system. To the Left, she was a character made up to embody racial fears. But Levin's investigation, which you should read in full, shows that the characters who populate political stump speeches shouldn't be taken at face value.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.