During Ronald Reagan’s original run for President of the United States, he routinely lamented the “Welfare Queen” by pointing to a Chicago woman who lived an extravagant lifestyle while collecting public assistance from the hardworking taxpayers of Illinois. Over 100 aliases. Dozens of addresses. Numerous children. $150,000 in stolen aid. For a time in the 1970s, Linda Taylor was a notorious flash in the pan— a symbol embraced by a political party to showcase everything wrong with welfare in the U.S. But for all of Reagan’s harbingering an uprising of low income individuals scamming their way to excess, his prime example, though often a heinous person, was more fiction than fact. In The Queen, Josh Levin explores the complicated life of Linda Taylor, the Welfare Queen.
Linda Taylor was not an easy or even a particularly good person. She never passed a grift she didn’t like. From applying for assistance under various aliases to filing false insurance claims, Taylor’s exploits are frustrating. Yet her exploitation of bureaucratic public systems almost pales in comparison to Reagan’s fabulist use of her story to sell a political movement that caused severe damage to the welfare system for decades.
Levin captures this by not approaching Taylor from purely a biographical perspective. To do so would create nothing but an unsympathetic portrait. Rather, while providing a compelling narrative about her life, Levin juggles political analysis and true crime to create a broader societal reflection.
That’s not to suggest that Taylor comes across as anything better than awful. Even under the intense scrutiny her public trial received in the 1970s, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for her actions. Yet, when Levin finally gets around to examining her further criminal activity in the second half of the book — including abuse and murder — more ire should be focused on the politicians and pundits mentioned. After all, they used Taylor to craft a moral war on the poor yet dropped her from headlines even as she committed more heinous acts. It was never about her, but rather, what they wanted her to symbolize.
Through impeccable research and a captivating subject, Levin has crafted a well-considered look at a true American myth.
Title: The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth
Author: Josh Levin
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Classification: Biography, True Crime
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.