The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth
Little, Brown and Company, $14.99 (paper)
In the original Republican version of the CARES Act, the $2 trillion dollar stimulus package that will give most Americans $1,200, poor families were supposed to get just half the financial assistance that middle-class families received. The act that passed did not contain this provision, but the fact that it was proposed at all is telling. Many Republicans believe that low-income individuals are undeserving of aid—and so resistant to work that financial assistance in the midst of a pandemic might incentivize them to stay unemployed. And, as legal scholar Mehrsa Baradaran has pointed out, the final version of the act still deems many people “undeserving”: those who work in the adult entertainment industry, for instance, are ineligible for stimulus money, and individuals with felony convictions cannot receive small business loans.
None of this is terribly surprising. Indeed, Donald Trump has been trying to gut social programs for years. Just months ago, he proposed a budget that included staggering cuts to food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance. A federal judge recently put a stop to a Trump administration plan to kick 700,000 Americans off of food stamps in the midst of the pandemic.
The “welfare queen” label is overwhelming used to indicate black women.
Motivating this antipathy toward welfare is Trump’s (and conservatives’) belief in a number of stereotypes about those who receive public assistance. Trump has suggested that welfare “discourage[s] able-bodied adults from working,” invoking the longstanding myth that people are impoverished because of lack of motivation and merit, and that they rely on public assistance out of laziness. This myth is rich with racial antipathy, drawing on stereotypes linking black people and laziness that date back to slavery, and which were later also connected with poor immigrants. In each generation, these stereotypes have taken on an incarnation suiting the Zeitgeist. In the 1930s, the Chicago Tribune decried “unscrupulous parasites” profiting from Depression relief, and likely had in mind both black Americans and southern European immigrants, whose status as “white” was not yet secure. In 1976 it was articulated memorably by Ronald Reagan, who claimed welfare fraud was so rampant that one woman in Chicago had fifteen telephone numbers, thirty addresses, and eighty names, which she used to bilk the system for $150,000 a year. The media at the time dubbed this woman—a black woman named Linda Taylor—the “welfare queen,” and the anecdote subsequently became a crowd favorite for Reagan, his go-to justification for his efforts to decimate public assistance.
The process by which public sentiment turned against welfare correlates with how the public imagined the stereotypical welfare recipient. When the program was created in the 1930s, amidst economic catastrophe, it was praised. Historian Premilla Nadasen has noted that it remained broadly popular until the 1960s, when a greater proportion of black women started receiving benefits. By the early 1970s, as journalist Josh Levin has written, news coverage and government reports “framed public aid as an explicitly racial issue.” By the mid-70s, Levin continues, almost 85 percent of Americans believed that “too many people on welfare cheat.” This summation is not only racist and inaccurate, but misunderstands the structural forces that result in the exclusion of so many people from the labor market, effectively forcing them to rely on public assistance.
Scholars have shown that the “welfare queen” label is overwhelming used to indicate black women, and that the use of the term leads members of the public to support cuts to welfare. Yet contrary to the pernicious “welfare queen” stereotype, black people have never been a majority of welfare recipients, and welfare fraud is exceedingly uncommon. In fact, the welfare system has always been more likely to illegally deny benefits to those who fit the criteria than benefits-seekers are to commit fraud.
Given how pervasive the trope of the “welfare queen” remains, it’s worth examining its origin in the public shaming of Linda Taylor. Levin’s The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, is the first full-scale effort to present Taylor’s biography. Levin found that Taylor was indeed a welfare cheat—but also a serial scam artist, a kidnapper, and perhaps even a murderer. She really did drive a Cadillac, use multiple identities, and drape herself in fur coats. But, as all this reveals, she was also about as far from a typical welfare recipient as it is possible to be, a fact that Reagan elided and that Levin takes pains to emphasize.
Levin seeks to contextualize Taylor’s life, in an attempt to make some sense of her often bizarre, sometimes violent, constantly mendacious behavior. The daughter of a white mother and black father, she was born in 1926 in Golddust, Tennessee, where her parentage constituted a crime. Christened Martha Louise White, her impoverished white family excluded her because she could not pass for white, and she was expelled from her first school at the age of six. By fourteen, she’d given birth to her first child. While still a teenager, she fled the Jim Crow South and followed the wartime labor boom to the West Coast. For the rest of her life, she moved continuously, changed her name constantly, and committed a truly astounding number of crimes—from stealing babies from hospitals to possibly hiring a hitman to kill one of her husbands.
In the fall of 1974, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about welfare fraud, citing Taylor as an extreme example. Thousands of newspapers across the country reprinted versions of this story, many focusing on Taylor herself, with some branding her a “welfare queen.” She was indicted for welfare fraud, though for just $7,608 worth of payments; Cook County spent far more securing a conviction than she’d allegedly stolen. Her case led Illinois to aggressively pursue, prosecute, and punish welfare cheats, and, in 1976, it led Reagan—a longtime foe of welfare—to tell a stunned crowd about this “woman from Chicago.”
Levin’s book, widely praised, is impressive in its dedication to nuance and proper context. That said, The Queen misses a critical contributor to Taylor’s decades of social exclusion: she was a victim of something called the American Plan. Understanding the American Plan and its legacy not only adds critical context to Taylor’s life, but also helps explains the lives of so many other midcentury women, particularly women of color, who were excluded from the labor market and forced to rely on public assistance and underground economies.
As Levin recounts, Taylor was first arrested not for welfare fraud, but because authorities suspected her of being sexually promiscuous. In January 1943, when she was sixteen or seventeen years old, Taylor was arrested for “disorderly conduct” in Seattle; in October 1944, she was arrested a few miles west of Seattle for “vagrancy”; and the next month, the Seattle police again booked her for “disorderly conduct.” Levin notes that the formal charges in all three arrests were euphemisms, part of “ an expansive statute used to detain those suspected of lewd or undesirable behavior,” passed by authorities seeking “to control VD [venereal disease] by controlling women.” In the weeks following her first 1943 arrest, Taylor was denied bail and forced to report to the health department for a VD test. Taylor was forced to undergo more VD tests after her other arrests. In April 1946, she was again arrested on vague morals charges, largely because the police suspected “she might be infected with a venereal disease,” this time in Oakland, California.
While Levin correctly describes how this carceral regime was widespread in and around Seattle and Oakland during the mid-1940s, he does not connect it to a nationwide system of social control. As I wrote in my book, from the 1910s through the 1950s (even into the 1970s in some areas), government officials across the United States detained tens of thousands of women (and virtually no men) on suspicion of promiscuity. These women were forcibly examined for VD, and then incarcerated if found to be infected. They were locked in what some called “concentration camps”—filthy, claustrophobic penal institutions where they were “treated” for VD with poisonous mercury- and arsenic-based drugs. This set of loosely connected local, state, and federal statutes, which reached all the way to the U.S. territories of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic, were referred to by officials at the time as the American Plan. It was already in place decades before Taylor was first arrested, and it continued for decades after.
Women detained under the American Plan—and women arrested for “morals offenses” more broadly, including disorderly conduct, vagrancy, waywardness, and prostitution—often had remarkable difficulty getting a job. Community members and potential employers well understood the meaning of their arrests and shunned them. This exclusion from the labor market often pushed women into more dangerous jobs, such as selling sex or defying prohibition and anti-gambling laws. Perversely, authorities often required women to hold down jobs as a condition of their release, so many women who could not do so were forced to flee or hide from parole officers, making it even more difficult to find legal work. Other penal institutions “paroled” women (especially black women) into domestic positions, where wealthy white women would police their conduct and behavior, a situation so stifling that many fled and sought livelihoods in underground economies instead.
Levin does point out that, in spite of the thriving war industry job market in Oakland, Taylor “didn’t derive much benefit from the Bay Area’s wartime economic boom.” But he attributes this to her lack of formal schooling and to anti-black racism. Both of these factors may have prevented Taylor from securing certain jobs, but it’s worth noting that a dearth of academic qualifications hardly mattered for the vast majority of war industry positions, and, as Levin notes, “no official records issued in California labeled her a ‘Negro,’” instead identifying Taylor as “both white and Mexican.” But exclusion from the labor market was a quintessential result of detention under the American Plan.
Understanding this gendered system of policing, then, is crucial for making sense of how Taylor came to be the stereotypical “welfare queen.” While her choices were uniquely her own, the circumstances that pushed Taylor into the illicit economy were sadly far from unique. They are the same reasons that hundreds of thousands of Americans cannot secure stable employment—and have nothing to do with motivation or ability.
While the laws that led to Taylor’s early incarcerations are largely gone, the U.S. labor market unfortunately continues to sadistically penalize people for their incarceration history—a practice that disproportionately harms people of color. More than a dozen states still allow employers to consider job applicants’ criminal history. This is to say nothing of other factors that might exacerbate the struggle to find employment, such as immigration status and the decimation of unions. And this will all, of course, be worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which will put many out-of-work low-wage workers in competition both with each other and with more conventionally qualified candidates. A history of incarceration, a challenge in the best of times, may now be in effect an immediate disqualification for finding employment.
A full accounting of the story of Linda Taylor—and the “welfare queen” myth—must make clear that so many individuals are forced to rely on public assistance because of inequities baked into U.S. policing and capitalism. Even a true, one-in-a-million scam artist like Taylor was, to a large extent, forced into such a life by forces beyond her control.