B I O G R A P H Y
Welfare royalty A story of politics, benefits and myth-making
The forgotten life behind an American myth
JOSH LEVIN 432pp. Wildfire. Paperback, £14.99.
GROWING UP IN AN American liberal middleclass family, I didn’t believe in the welfare queen. The term (“benefits scrounger”, British readers might say) belongs to the pantheon of right-wing tropes, like the death panel that some conservatives allege will decide the fate of patients under universal healthcare plans; the deep state that frustrates the operation of democratically elected government; or, going back further, the hand-wringing Jewish cabal. These tropes feed off a slim substrate of the real world and get magnified by fear, disgruntlement and a deep suspicion of power.
I thought I understood the various bogeymen behind the welfare queen: a fear of black Americans, a suspicious anger directed at people who seem, in the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s metaphor, to be jumping the queue, and a paranoia that “the white race” will be outnumbered by all those “welfare kids”. Anyone who studies poverty in America knows how limited welfare is, how dated in its subsidies, how absolutely constrained in what it gets you and the number of hoops you need to jump through monthly to secure it. Anyone who knew welfare knew, I thought, that the welfare queen is a myth. Except it turns out that she isn’t. Josh Levin’s The Queen looks behind the long rhetorical shadow of the welfare queen to reveal the sad,
baffling person standing behind it: the Chicago con artist, serial kidnapper and probable murderer Linda Taylor.
The book opens in Chicago in 1974, six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr sent the West Side up in flames. During this period Linda Taylor’s racket was insurance fraud. She invited a burglary detective into her house to run through the litany of items – a grandfather clock, a gold stove, a hefty green refrigerator with attached ice maker she said were smuggled through her modest kitchen window. Taylor reminded Detective Jack Sherwin of a woman who had reported a similarly lavish theft two years earlier in a different South Side apartment, and under a different name: Connie Jarvis.
The Jarvis fraud led Sherwin back to Covert, Michigan, where Taylor went by Dr Connie Walker, Chicago heart surgeon. The real estate agent she hired to find a new house, Ed Hedlund, remembers her remarkable hats, “so large they entered the room before she did”, and her braggadocio. She talked about her husband’s thriving cab company, and drove a blue-and-white Cadillac plastered with official-looking medical stickers. It was fitted with a two-way radio, “in case of surgical emergencies”. She put down a small deposit and moved in.
During this period she collected cheques addressed to Connie Green. This was the name she used when she brought a toddler to the local Department of Social Services and told a caseworker about her seven children, including a set of twins and triplets whose birth dates were only five months apart. Her case was approved. But Hedlund, who was beginning to realize that he would never receive full payment on the house he had sold Connie Walker, raised his suspicions with his lawyer, who
Linda Taylor, 1974
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and translator. She has recently completed a novel in the course of the conversation revealed that Walker had come to him seeking to file adoption papers, for children he suspected didn’t belong to her. In 1972 Taylor was charged with welfare fraud, but posted bond and fled the state before trial. When Hedlund returned to the abandoned property, he found that Taylor had left behind a gaggle of malnourished farm animals.
The reason we know about Linda Taylor today, in some form or another, is that one of Jack Sherwin’s fellow detectives, convinced that higher-ups in the police department would bury or bungle the case, passed her story to the Chicago Tribune. George Bliss, a showboating investigative reporter who often tried for a hat-trick of stories on the front page, had been writing articles about welfare fraud, filled with colourful pops of malfeasance – doctors claiming fees for delivering, and sometimes circumcising, imaginary babies, for example. Bliss fraternized with the Chicago police, drinking and picnicking with them, occasionally posing as an officer himself to get access to a crime scene. (In a sad turn, his manic reporting dissolved some years later into bipolar disorder, and he borrowed a revolver from one of those friendly police officers to shoot himself and his wife, fatally.)
Bliss had a considerable megaphone; in the 1960s the Tribune had more readers than any non-tabloid American paper. He latched on to Taylor’s story because he knew killer details when he saw them, some cribbed directly from Sherwin’s case file. “Linda Taylor received Illinois welfare checks and food stamps”, his first article began, despite the fact that she had three cars, “claimed to own three Southside buildings, and was about to leave for a vacation to Hawaii” – but his drive to illustrate corruption and waste within the Department of Public Aid was also shaped by his conviction that there were corruption and waste to be found. The next morning, Bliss reported that the state legislature was thinking along the same lines, opening an investigation into whether Taylor was part of “a widespread scheme” of “well-organized” welfare cheats, including department officials.
Papers around the country delighted in the story of a fabulous social chameleon swapping ethnicities, aliases and professions. She attended her court appearances swathed in leather and fur – fur cuffs and collars, long black leather gloves that sheathed rings and bracelets; she wore busty blouses, a denim suit, a white tam o’ shanter. She outfitted her latest husband with what Levin describes as “faux crocodile shoes with little goldfish embedded in the plastic heels”. As the trial dragged on, the media crowned her successors: the Californian “welfare queen” of June 1978, the “Ice Cream Welfare Queen” of August 1978, the Pasadena welfare recipient found in December of 1980 with a Cadillac whose bumper sticker read “My other car is a Rolls”. (It was.) “No other ‘welfare queen’ has done so well”, the Tribune wrote, as if appraising a county fair.
Levin astutely observes that the welfare queen had predecessors in urban mythology. In 1947 a “lady in mink” was said to be wafting rent-free through Manhattan hotels. A few years later, the Tribune investigated “women relief cheaters”. In the 1960s and 70s, Reader’s Digest turned out a merciless series of articles on welfare payments collected by “able-bodied hippies”, or women who sent their children begging while they fed their lovers steak. And just a few years before Bliss’s first article on Taylor was published, a song called “Welfare Cadillac” made the Billboard charts and charmed Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, real welfare mothers often needed to borrow money for clothing and groceries, since, as one Illinois lawmaker complained, food allowances were “hardly enough for a grown, healthy pigeon”. Levin’s thesis is that Taylor’s rough edges were smoothed off so that she could be turned into a myth, eventually a Reagan campaign prop, but the truth is more disheartening: the myth preceded her and didn’t need her to keep going. As the headline went: “‘Welfare Cadillac’ Reality for Woman in Chicago”.
NOVEMBER 15, 2019