If you haven't read Josh Levin's amazing story at Slate — the woman upon whom the term "welfare queen" was originally bestowed — you're missing out on a fascinating and disturbing profile of an unlikely political figure. Linda Taylor was never mentioned by name, but she was the subject of many of Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign speech anecdotes about a Chicago woman who'd defrauded the government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while Reagan's critics on the left argued that the woman was a fabrication, Levin reminds us at length that she wasn't.
If Taylor was a character in a movie, people would dismiss her as an implausibility. She really did bilk various government programs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. She also burned through husbands, sometimes more than one at a time. She was a master of disguise, armed with dozens of wigs. She flipped through assumed and fake identities and employed 33 known aliases; Levin said that he refers to her as "Linda Taylor" because that was the name she was known by at the time of her high-profile trial for fraud. She enchanted and charmed some of her marks, while others were deathly afraid of her.
But Levin's story isn't merely fascinating. It also deepens our understanding of the narratives and reality around welfare.
The Racial Ideas That Don't Neatly Line Up
In the popular imagination, the stereotype of the "welfare queen" is thoroughly raced — she's an indolent black woman, living off the largesse of taxpayers. The term is seen by many as a dogwhistle, a way to play on racial anxieties without summoning them directly.
Taylor's own racial reality is much harder to pin down, however. Born Martha Miller, she was listed as white in the 1930 Census, just like everyone else in her family. But she had darker skin and darker hair. People who knew her family told Levin that she had Native American ancestry. One of her husbands, who was black, said she could look like an Asian woman at times. Another earlier husband and ostensible father to some of her children was white, and during that marriage she gave birth to kids who alternately appeared black, unmistakably white, or racially ambiguous. At times she posed as a Jewish woman. In one photo, she has long, blonde hair.
"She was white according to official records and in the view of certain family members who couldn't imagine it any other way," Levin writes. " 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."
Living Off The System
To people who were opposed to welfare, Taylor's colorful transgressions were evidence of just how little oversight there was in the program and how easily it could be abused. (In reality, Taylor stole her money from a host of government services, and defrauded private individuals, too.)
So how much fraud is there really in the welfare system? As Eric Schnurer writes at The Atlantic, it's actually not so clear.
It's not easy to get agreement on actual fraud levels in government programs. Unsurprisingly, liberals say they're low, while conservatives insist they're astronomically high. In truth, it varies from program to program. One government report says fraud accounts for less than 2 percent of unemployment insurance payments. It's seemingly impossible to find statistics on "welfare" (i.e., TANF) fraud, but the best guess is that it's about the same. A bevy of inspector general reports found "improper payment" levels of 20 to 40 percent in state TANF programs — but when you look at the reports, the payments appear all to be due to bureaucratic incompetence (categorized by the inspector general as either "eligibility and payment calculation errors" or "documentation errors"), rather than intentional fraud by beneficiaries.
Levin cites an old government report from a few years after Taylor's fraud trial estimating the amount of overpayment in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to be somewhere between $376 million and $3.2 billion. Even back then, when welfare fraud was getting a ton of press attention, the figures were wildly unclear.
"What's clear, though, is that Linda Taylor's larger-than-life example created an indelible, inaccurate impression of public aid recipients," Levin writes. "Linda Taylor showed that it was possible for a dedicated criminal to steal a healthy chunk of welfare money. Her case did not prove that, as a group, public aid recipients were fur-laden thieves bleeding the American economy dry."
Taylor's Other Crimes Were Much, Much Worse
The extent of Taylor's lies and the ostentatious way she committed them made her the perfect face for arguments about profligate welfare cheats. But compared to the constellation of offenses Taylor may have committed or abetted, her fraud looks almost tame.
There were the kidnappings. For years, Taylor would take children from parents who made the mistake of trusting her. She was even suspected in the Fronczak kidnapping, one of the most notorious child abductions of the 1960s. In that case, a woman dressed as a nurse snatched a newborn baby and fled.
Johnnie says his mother often claimed that she worked in a hospital, and that she'd wear a nurse's hat. Rose Termini, without any prompting, begins the narrative of her son's kidnapping by saying that Taylor "once told me she was a nurse and she got around a lot with kids." According to Termini, Taylor would often dress in a white uniform—she says she saw the getup with her own eyes.
In 1977, a man named Samuel Harper told police prior to Taylor's sentencing for welfare fraud that he believed she had kidnapped Paul Joseph Fronczak. He explained that he was living with her at the time, that several other white infants were in her home, and that she left the house in a white uniform on the day of the kidnapping.
And there were the deaths. Taylor posed as a voodoo practitioner and spiritual adviser, and after one or Taylor's particularly naive marks during that scheme turned up dead, Taylor was found with the dead woman's credit card. But police investigators didn't go after Taylor on murder charges, because they were worried it would detract from an ongoing welfare fraud case.
"Linda Taylor's story shows that there are real costs associated with this kind of panic, a moral climate in which stealing welfare money takes precedence over kidnapping and homicide," Levin writes."
If you have time for only one long read this weekend, you should really holler at Levin's mesmerizing story of this colorful, maddening figure who somehow became central to one our country's most intractable and racially charged policy debates.
NPR's Melissa Block spoke with Josh Levin about the article. You can listen to that interview in the player at the top of the page.
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When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976, he railed against the welfare state. He portrayed it as a broken system, rife with fraud and abuse. And he singled out one woman to make his case.
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BLOCK: The so-called welfare queen became an enduring trope in the debate over welfare. Some liberals called the story bogus, a fiction. Well, now, Josh Levin of the online magazine Slate has investigated. He's turned up the sordid history of a woman who was very much real. And as he tells it, Taylor's welfare fraud was dwarfed by far more serious crimes, including possible child abduction and murder. Josh, welcome to the program.
JOSH LEVIN: Thanks, Melissa.
BLOCK: You call this woman Linda Taylor in your story. That was one of her aliases. But she was also Connie Harbaugh, Martha Miller, Sandra Brownlee, Reverend Linda Ray. She had dozens of aliases over the year and a lot of things about her are unclear, including her race. What do we know about her?
LEVIN: So we know that she was a woman whose life was about obfuscation. She was someone who had a different name, a different race, a different age often for everyone that she would encounter. You know, it was an interesting editorial decision in the piece, what do you call this woman? We decided to go with Linda Taylor because that's what she was known as at the height of her infamy. But to say that that was her consistent identity would not be true.
BLOCK: Doesn't begin to touch it. This story was covered at great length in Chicago back in the '70s by The Chicago Tribune. They revealed that Linda Taylor drove a Cadillac. She had a mink coat, posed as a heart surgeon. What else was known at the time?
LEVIN: She was, as Reagan said in that clip, someone who used a lot of different aliases, someone who had a lot of different addresses, someone who had a lot of different phone numbers and that was to abet public aid fraud. And that's really what the Tribune focused on. They also wrote about some other things that she was accused of, including kidnapping, including possible homicide. And they focused on things like her alleged voodoo practice and just other things to make her seem like a very outlandish character.
BLOCK: And somehow these more heinous crimes didn't get the attention that the welfare fraud case did. And there was one in particular - one case in particular you found that she'd been investigated for baby trafficking, kidnapping babies, possibly selling them. And it included a notorious case going back to 1964. It was the kidnapping of the Fronczak baby from a Chicago hospital. What happened?
LEVIN: There was a woman named Dora Fronczak and she had her child taken from her arms very soon after he was born. A woman in a white uniform came into the room and said a doctor needed to examine the child. The woman was seen leaving the hospital from a rear exit. There was a manhunt. This became a national cause celebre. Nine months later, it was reported that 35,000 people had been interviewed. The woman in the white uniform was never found. The child has never been found to this day, 50 years later. But Linda Taylor was investigated as a suspect in the 1970s.
BLOCK: And is there any proof that she was, in fact, the woman who kidnapped that baby?
LEVIN: There's circumstantial evidence, people who said that she would claim that she was a nurse. Her son told me that there would be children in the house that he knew were not hers and that would leave mysteriously. When she was sentenced for welfare fraud in 1977, around the time of that hearing, a man who lived with her told prosecutors that she had taken the Fronczak baby, that he believed it very strongly, that she had left the house wearing a nurse's uniform the day of the kidnapping. So there's not definitive proof, but there's a lot of things that make you wonder.
BLOCK: Josh, you write in your story in Slate that Linda Taylor was implicated in at least two suspicious deaths of women and one of them was a mother of three in Chicago whom Taylor had moved in with. But somehow, again, that death didn't get attention. And you put it this way, a murder in Chicago is mundane. A sumptuously attired woman stealing from John Q. Taxpayer is a menace.
LEVIN: Yeah. Linda Taylor moved in with this family. And I talked to the daughter of the woman who ended up dying. And she described how Linda basically took over their lives, that everything changed, that they had had, like, kind of well-to-do childhood. And then very quickly, they didn't have anything to eat. Her mother was getting sick. And then, less than a year later, she was dead. And on her death certificate, the cause is consumption of barbiturates. They took a blood sample and they found that she had a very high amount of these drugs in her system. Chicago police looked into this. The Cook County State's Attorney's Office looked into this.
I was told that they believe that there was some chicanery there, that they believed that Linda Taylor was probably responsible for this woman's death, but they just didn't feel like they had the evidence to connect her to the crime, that they didn't feel like a jury would have enough to convict her. And there was also a concern that she was actually out on bail for welfare fraud at this time when all of this was happening, this alleged homicide. There was concern that it would be perceived that they were bringing her up on homicide charges in order to get more publicity for the welfare case and that they thought it might jeopardize that case to bring these additional charges.
BLOCK: So somehow, the welfare case became the thing that they were hanging everything on.
LEVIN: Yeah, the welfare case became a very, you know, politically important thing to a lot of people. I think there was a very strong political will to bring her up on those charges and maybe there wasn't a big kind of grand reason to just prosecute a woman for murder.
BLOCK: Linda Taylor died in 2002. The name on her death certificate is not Linda Taylor. It's Constance Loyd. She had become a villain, right, a symbol of welfare fraud and abuse in an epidemic that was ravaging the system. The point that, I think, you're making in your story is that while, yes, there was welfare fraud and, yes, she did commit that, that she should not be seen as the emblem of what welfare fraud was. She was a criminal many, many times over.
LEVIN: Right. She is not an example of anything. She is a unique figure when it comes to public aid fraud. She is a unique figure, I think, when it comes to American criminality. She's not somebody that you want to use to exemplify a trend. She's not someone you want to use to exemplify a strain of human behavior. So to make any kind of claim about public aid fraud or to make any kind of claim about welfare recipients by using her as an example is a pretty big mistake.
BLOCK: Josh Levin is executive editor of Slate magazine. Josh, thanks very much.
LEVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.