In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan told the story of a woman in Chicago who became known as the welfare queen, the embodiment of the problems with the welfare state. Like most myths, there’s some grain of truth embedded in this narrative: there was a woman in Chicago who was indicted on welfare fraud, but her other crimes were far more grave. Brooke speaks with Josh Levin, executive editor of Slate, about his investigation of Linda Taylor, America’s original welfare queen.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Back on the campaign trail in 1976, Ronald Reagan told a story about an unnamed woman whose crimes were almost too brazen to be believed.
FORMER PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: To collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four non-existent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In October of the same year, her fraud had escalated.
FORMER PRESIDENT REAGAN: She has used 127 names, so far, posed as a mother of 14 children at one time, 7 at another and, once while on welfare, posed as an open-heart surgeon, complete with office.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh Levin, executive editor at Slate, investigated the story of Linda Taylor, America’s original welfare queen. Welcome to On the Media.
JOSH LEVIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So take us back to the eighties. Reagan is president. He gave the press a ready-made symbol for the problem of welfare. Was Linda Taylor really the kind of criminal that he portrayed her as?
JOSH LEVIN: The welfare stuff was a pretty narrow slice of this woman's criminal career. She was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, baby trafficking. Reagan didn't mention any of those things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The welfare queen, however, was not entirely Reagan's creation. The Chicago Tribune had a big hand in this. So could you discuss the role of the press in this story?
JOSH LEVIN: Sure. George Bliss was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Tribune, and he wrote a lot of stories about public aid problems in Illinois. You know, he would have headlines about State Probing Medicaid Problems, good journalism but not something that’ll make you spit out your morning coffee.
And then he found the welfare queen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For most news outlets, the welfare queen seems to be with a story of Linda Taylor began and pretty much ended, because, you suggested, it wasn't in anyone's interest to tell the whole story.
JOSH LEVIN: By naming her the welfare queen, the Tribune could narrow its focus on this public aid crisis that they believed was happening. Ronald Reagan could make a point about a policy angle that he wanted to pursue and try to appeal to working-class voters who would be very offended by this sort of theft. Reagan's opponents could say the Reagan was fibbing or that he was exaggerating her crimes. You know, and the police, politicians were in their ear, saying, we’ve got to put a handle on this. And, you know, her other crimes, the kidnappings, the, you know, alleged homicide, those were very difficult to investigate. And, you know, the political will was really pointing them towards focusing on getting her welfare stuff under control.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is there a hero in your story?
JOSH LEVIN: If there is one, I think it's the Chicago Police Detective Jack Sherwin. He runs across this woman. She files a false burglary report, kind of an insurance scam situation. He writes her up for that. The second time, different woman, different apartment, different part of town, similar situation, false burglary report. She was wearing a different wig the second time that he met her. She was kind of a master of disguise. The head of the Legislative Advisory Committee on Public Aid would say she's black, but she could also look Asian and, you know, Latino and white. And that was kind of mystique around her, that she was such a shape shifter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What tipped off Sherwin that the person he’d seen a couple of years earlier filing a false report was the person he now suspected of filing a false report?
JOSH LEVIN: Well, the scam was so similar. She was claiming that her fur and jewelry and whatnot had been stolen. There is something that like caused a tingle. He asked her to go get a glass of water for him, and he ran the fingerprints off the glass, and that’s how he discovered it was the same person. And he started digging and found out that she maybe had seven different husbands, all these different names and addresses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sherwin feels that even though she was convicted, she ultimately beat the system.
JOSH LEVIN: Right. She was convicted of welfare fraud and perjury for lying to a grand jury about the different names that she used. She wasn’t in prison for more than four or five years and, as far as I could tell, she didn’t go to prison after that for possible murders. She was never convicted of any of the alleged kidnappings. Back in the sixties, a cop found that she had kids that didn’t belong to her on a couple of different occasions, but the children were returned and no charges were ever filed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Except for one child.
JOSH LEVIN: Right. In 1964, there was a child named Paul Joseph Fronczak who was taken from his mother’s arms in a Chicago hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. I mean, it was written about everywhere. There were hundreds of cops looking into this, 50 FBI agents, 35,000 people interviewed in connection to this case.
QUESTION: Do you have an appeal to the kidnapper?
CHESTER FRONCZAK: I pray that she’ll take care of the baby, return him.
DORA FRONCZAK: [CRYING]I don’t know what more to say.
JOSH LEVIN: Nobody was ever arrested. The child has never been found, to this day, 50 years later.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Linda Taylor, as we’re calling her, switched race and age when convenient. Could you say that there's a sort of parallel between her protean shape shifting and the way her story reflected prevailing attitudes about race?
JOSH LEVIN: Here’s an answer: It was around the 1960s that you started to see the phrase “welfare mess” appear in the press and out of the mouths of legislators, and that was when more African-Americans started being added to the welfare rolls. Benefits that had previously been denied –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JOSH LEVIN: - were being granted to folks that were, in fact, eligible for them. Robert Byrd, the senator, held these very racially-charged hearings about, you know, how the money was going to women and their paramours and, you know, being spent on alcohol. And images around this time of poverty and magazines went from usually depicting white folks to depicting black folks, far out of proportion to the numbers that were receiving welfare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JOSH LEVIN: And so, fast forward to the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan starts talking about this woman. She is written about in the press as a black woman. You know, Reagan never said this woman is black, but voters, I think, could infer that that's what he was talking about. And I think that's the image that has certainly persisted in people's minds when you hear the term “welfare queen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the many ironies in your story is that although Ronald Reagan dusted off the welfare queen’s lurid misadventures, arguing, as you say, that rampant fraud demanded decisive government action, in fact, most of the savings he recouped wasn't in cutting fraud but in cutting benefits. And so, it continues, right?
JOSH LEVIN: Right. I think, you know, there’s currently a debate going on about food stamps and cutting from that program. There is the idea that we can just cut out fraud and abuse, and that will save billions upon billions of dollars. But I think it's just really a myth,
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You quote Eric Schnurer in The Atlantic, saying that none of the savings in the current food stamp cuts would come from fraud, but purely funding and tightening the benefits.
JOSH LEVIN: Right, but when you hear politicians try to sell it on the House floor to their constituents, you still hear the same kind of language about isn’t it so frustrating when you see someone in the grocery store with king crab legs and then they put it on the EBT card?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JOSH LEVIN: It’s just this idea that the people who are getting food stamps or the people who are getting any kind – other kind of public aid, they just don’t deserve it. And so, if we cut it, we’re not cutting off anyone who might need this to feed their family. We’re cutting off the king crab leg people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh, thank you very much.
JOSH LEVIN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh Levin is executive editor at Slate, and his story in Slate is called, “The Welfare Queen.”
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer and Khrista Rypl. We had more help from Kimmie Regler. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week was Andrew Dunne and Ken Feldman.
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BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.