In 1976, Reagan gave his famous “Welfare Queen” speech about a woman who had committed welfare fraud.
“In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,” Reagan said at a campaign rally that year. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”
He never actually used the term “Welfare Queen” in that speech, though he did in a radio address later. Credit for the term is given either to The Chicago Tribune or Jet Magazine, who used the term at about the same time, and before Reagan used it.
Several pundits over the years – from Paul Krugman to Chris Matthews – have dismissed Reagan’s talk of a “Welfare Queen” as a fictional story or a “gross exaggeration” used to rally Reagan’s base and drum up support for the cause of downsizing public aid programs.
It is true that the story was used to support Reagan’s agenda, but she actually was a real person – and her name was Linda Taylor.
The original story about Ms. Taylor came in 1974 from the The Chicago Tribune:
“Linda Taylor received Illinois welfare checks and food stamps, even tho[ugh] she was driving three 1974 autos—a Cadillac, a Lincoln,and a Chevrolet station wagon—claimed to own four South Side buildings, and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii,” wrote The Tribune.
The Tribune referenced a report that detailed a lifestyle of “false identities that seemed calculated to confuse our computerized, credit-oriented society.”
There was evidence that the 47-year-old Taylor had used three Social Security cards, 27 names, 31 addresses, and 25 phone numbers to fuel her thievery, and she had 30 different wigs. Taylor had gained a reputation as a master of disguise. She had tried to pull herself off as different ages, nationalities, and races.
As the Tribune and other outlets stayed on the story, those figures continued to rise. Reporters noted that Linda Taylor had used as many as 80 names, and that she’d received at least $150,000 in illicit welfare cash.
These would be the figures that Ronald Reagan would cite on the campaign trail in 1976.
The Legislative Advisory Committee on Public Aid told the Tribune, “She is without a doubt, the biggest welfare cheat of all time.”
One of the assistant state’s attorneys prosecuting Taylor told the UPI that the rumors about Taylor were “probably” true. “But what makes me angry about all the stories is that most of them are not indictable,” she said. “We simply don’t have the facts on all of those things.”
The hard evidence—canceled AFDC checks, and Medicaid ID cards under multiple names— only allowed the state to charge her with stealing $8,000.
According to Wikipedia: “Taylor was ultimately charged with committing $8,000 in fraud and having four aliases. She was convicted of illegally obtaining 23 welfare checks using two aliases. She was sentenced to two to six years in prison.”
In reality, Taylor had also been investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and even baby trafficking. But she was never charged with those crimes.
The welfare trial was in 1977, and in February 1978, Taylor entered Illinois’ Dwight Correctional Center. When her sentence was up, she changed her name and left Chicago, and the cops who had pursued her in Illinois lost track of her whereabouts.
There seems to be a general consensus among those who have written about Linda Taylor that she was quite a dedicated criminal.
Whether it is fair to project her story onto an entire group of people (such as public aid recipients) is another question.