"She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."
Ronald Reagan's infamous "Welfare Queen" mythos shaped and defined the way conservatives and many ordinary Americans saw - and continue to see - public assistance and "big government," as well as those who rely most on both. It's a sweet siren song that tantalizes the baser natures of the conservative constituency while serving as a cautionary tale to taxpayers when rendering unto Uncle Sam that which is Uncle Sam's.
Reagan, who began weaving this narrative into his speeches throughout his 1976 candidacy bid for president, never mentioned the identity of the woman behind the story, nor did he ever make mention of any ethnic background. In fact, the narrative sounded so patently ridiculous that many liberals assumed he made the whole thing up just to discredit welfare and curry favor to voters' racial resentments in the process.
For decades, few bothered to learn the true story of the "Welfare Queen." It was more than enough for most to use her illustrated escapades as outrage porn fodder for straitlaced conservatives and purported proof of indolence and sloth among a particular ethnic group.
Josh Levin's extensive Slate report finally pulls back the curtain on the "Welfare Queen" mythos. As it turns out, there's a lot more to the life of the woman starring as Reagan's "Welfare Queen" than meets the eye.
Of course, there were few things that stood out in my mind about this story and the woman at the center of it:
- Linda Taylor was a profoundly broken individual and a poster child for psychopathy, judging by her actions and the way she treated others and even her own children.
- Much of Taylor's life was based on ambiguity, lies and conjecture. Documents proved a relatively unreliable way of pinning down truths. Even her death certificate stood as proof that things were never as they appeared.
- Taylor's ethnic background was equally ambiguous and fluid. The commonplace caricature of the dark-skinned, heavy-set and weave-donning EBT/SNAP cheat gives way to a woman who was considered white by most and able to switch ethnicity based on her needs and whims:
- Taylor wasn't just a con artist and a fraudster - she was also a suspected murderer. It's likely that she's responsible for killing Patricia Parks and possibly had a hand in the deaths of Sherman Ray and Mildred Markham. In the case of Patricia Parks, Taylor positioned herself as a friend and caretaker, feeding Parks a steady diet of barbiturates while draining the Trinidadian native's finances dry. She wasn't above setting other people against one another to get what she wanted. In the case of Ray, it's said by many that she fueled a mutual conflict between Ray and another man, Willtrue Loyd, eventually leading to the death of Ray by Loyd's hand. Taylor later married Loyd.
- Taylor was also a suspected kidnapper and child trafficker. During the 1960s, she was arrested twice for kidnapping, but was never charged since the children were returned safe and sound. She was also suspected in the 1964 kidnapping of Paul Joseph Fronczak, who has yet to be found. Some thought it was part of a scheme to better substantiate fraudulent welfare claims, but her son offered a far more troubling explanation:
Given Taylor’s ability to fabricate paperwork, acquiring flesh-and-blood children seems like an unnecessary risk if all you're looking to do is pad a welfare application. Her son Johnnie believes his mother saw children as commodities, something to be acquired and sold. He remembers a little black girl—he doesn’t know her name—who stayed with them for a few months in the early 1960s, “and then she just disappeared one day.” Shortly before Lawrence Wakefield died, Johnnie says, a white baby named Tiger showed up out of nowhere, and then left the household just as mysteriously. I ask him if he knew where these kids came from or who they belonged to. “You knew they wasn’t hers,” he says.
- The ultimate motive in Taylor's acts was always money. In the cases of Parks, Markham, Ray and Loyd, Taylor stood to gain financially, whether through veterans benefits, life insurance payouts or, as with Parks, a steady drain her finances and assets until there was nothing left.
- The mainstream media either glossed over the above exploits or treated them as mere sideshows for what was considered the main event - her outsized penchant for welfare fraud. Even law enforcement officials and the courts were more concerned with her conviction as a welfare cheat than bringing her to justice as a murderer or kidnapper. After her trial and conviction for theft and perjury, the politicians and media lost interest in Taylor. However, the political narrative created from her exploits lived on.
- While many of the details offered by Reagan's Welfare Queen narrative seemed true, there was also plenty of room for fudging on his part. The oft-quoted $150,000 figure came about as estimates from various reporters. In really, Taylor was only charged with bilking $8,000 in welfare benefits, since it was all the hard evidence that officials could find. Nevertheless, bigger numbers make for larger guffaws of indignation among voters.
It’s possible that Taylor’s biological father—identified by Hubert Mooney as a man named Marvin White—was black. Or perhaps a family secret was buried a few more generations back. No matter her bloodlines, the more persistent truth was that Martha Miller—who would later shed her childhood name for a nearly endless set of aliases—was a racial Rorschach test. She was white according to official records and in the view of certain family members who couldn’t imagine it any other way. She was black (or colored, or a Negro) when it suited her needs, or when someone saw a woman they didn’t think, or didn’t want to think, could possibly be Caucasian.
In the end, Linda Taylor's usefulness as a poster child for welfare fraud was all that mattered. Her name didn't even matter - all Reagan and other politicians needed was a colorful narrative that would paint a vivid portrait of a problem that needed to be solved post-haste.
That narrative would go on to do fundamentally transform the nation's perception of public assistance and do incalculable damage to actual programs themselves. In the name of reducing fraud and waste, politicians on both sides of the aisle proceeded to cut funding and tighten benefits, pushing millions of families in need to the brink.
Taylor died in 2002 after a pronounced decline in health. Her death went unnoticed in the eyes of the media. As Taylor's body was cremated, neither a burial site nor a gravestone exists to mark her passing. All there's left is the legacy she unwittingly left behind and pain experienced by those she hurt during her life.