My colleague Josh Levin spent a good part of the year reporting out the life and crimes of “Linda Taylor,” an amazingly successful con artist whose defrauding of state benefit programs led her to be dubbed “the welfare queen.” It’s a fantastic story, one of those long reads that actually justifies the length, one of those why-is-this-not-a-movie tales I’m glad no other magazine snapped up first. (Take that, Believer!)
And it vaporizes decades and decades of obfuscation about an era-defining political controversy. As Levin writes in his lede, the “welfare queen” who showed up to the aid office in her Cadillac became a trope of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. She personified a backlash against welfare and the war on poverty that resulted in strict legislation after both Republican revolutions, 1980 and 1994.
Punchline: The reaction to the piece is basically the same as the reaction to the original “welfare queen” tale. Back then, and since then, conservatives have held up Taylor as an example of abuse, and liberals have doubted that such a character was real. Levin quotes Paul Krugman among the doubters:
Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.
Taylor was actually a white woman who passed for mutiple races, but Krugman was implying that she was black. Conservatives now writing about the story are making sure to score on Krugman, then going on to describe all the other waste the government allows. Doesn’t that sort of miss the point? Taylor wasn’t emblematic of all welfare users.
Welfare fraud investigations increased 729 percent across the country between 1970 and 1979. This wasn’t because fraud was on the rise… it was because Illinois and other states criminalized welfare overpayments that had once been handled administratively. The rising level of prosecutions didn’t correspond to an increase in benefit levels either. In fact, monthly welfare benefits (that is, payments via Aid to Families With Dependent Children and, after President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform legislation, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) began a long, steady decline in real dollars around the time of Taylor’s trial, one that’s continued to the present day.
Yeah, but data’s boring! To prove that a federal program is burning up money, you really need a Taylor or her 2013 dopplegänger, Jason Greenslate. The California surfer sat for an interview with Fox News this summer, and immediately became the face of food stamp waste. One month later, the House passed a version of the farm bill that cut into food stamps, some of them presumably going to people who didn’t commit fraud.