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"Well, gee, Welfare Mommy...." - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
"Well, gee, Welfare Mommy...."
One of the benefits of doing late-Saturday-afternoon errand runs (today, to the post office, office office, Wegmans and liquor store) is getting to hear WNYC's On the Media, which pulls back a lot of the Oz-ian curtain from the communications behemoths that cover the news when they're not making it.  The most interesting story they brought today was one recently updated on the virtual pages of Slate- about a woman who, be she real or myth, singlehandedly changed the course of American public assistance thanks to the Teflon-coated storytelling of one Ronald W. Reagan.

Two things I quickly learned from this reporting. One, the "Welfare Queen" wasn't from Reagan's Presidency or even his 1980 campaign for it, but first arose during his first-try presidential run against Gerald Ford in 1976. And two, she was not a myth, much as many on the left have tried to make her.  Linda Taylor was quite real, quite talented, and quite scary as shit- a sociopath, possibly a murderer, and hardly typical of the millions of heads of families who got (and still are) demonized on account of the legend that she inspired:

When I set out in search of Linda Taylor, I hoped to find the real story of the woman who played such an outsize role in American politics—who she was, where she came from, and what her life was like before and after she became the national symbol of unearned prosperity. What I found was a woman who destroyed lives, someone far more depraved than even Ronald Reagan could have imagined. In the 1970s alone, Taylor was investigated for homicide, kidnapping, and baby trafficking. The detective who tried desperately to put her away believes she’s responsible for one of Chicago’s most legendary crimes, one that remains unsolved to this day. Welfare fraud was likely the least of the welfare queen’s offenses.

But portraying her as such a multitalented scofflaw didn't fit either side's narrative, and so none of her 80 assorted aliases ever actually stuck with the story. The pundits on the right preferred her anonymity, the better to brand her as typical of all those other, truly mythical, welfare queens that are still loading up on steak and lobster when they're not trading in their food stamps for drugs and ciggies. Perhaps as bad, the reporters from the left didn't want her identified, either, the better to perpetuate the myth that she was a myth.

Yet, as the Slate story shows, Linda Taylor was as real as you and me- and as typical of social services clients as, well, probably nobody other than her:

For those who knew her decades ago, Linda Taylor was a terrifying figure. On multiple occasions, I had potential sources tell me they didn’t think I was really a journalist. Maybe I was a cop. Maybe I was trying to kill them. As Lamar Jones tells me about his brief marriage to the welfare queen, he keeps asking how I’ve found him, and why I want to know all of these personal details. If I’m in cahoots with Linda, as he suspects I might be, he assures me that I won’t be able to find him again. He’s just going to disappear.

Rather, that's more or less what Taylor did. Before Reagan was even elected, she was caught, convicted, and sent to an Illinois prison. The welfare queen was forgotten before anyone figured out who she really was.  Yet her legend resurfaced during the eight years of his presidency, in 1994, and even this year during the effort to reduce food stamp eligibility and amounts to the poorest of Americans even as farm subsidies are maintained or even increased.

The Slate piece goes on to document Taylor's possible roles in a prominent Chicago homicide and a famed local baby abduction- but nobody mentions THAT when demonizing her crime-unfighting superhero role as Welfare Queen.  Best as anyone can tell, she died in 2002- ironically, of a heart attack (since one wonders where she, like Dick Cheney, ever acquired the diagnosis without possessing the actual organ).   Near its end, it hits perhaps its highest point (or lowest, depending on your point of view):

If Linda Taylor had been seen as a suspect rather than a scapegoat, lives may have been saved. Prosecutors have great discretion in choosing what cases to bring—that’s how the rate of welfare indictments could shoot up so dramatically in a single decade. When politicians and journalists whip the public into a frenzy about welfare fraud, the limitations of municipal budgets and judicial resources dictate that less attention be paid to everything else. Linda Taylor’s story shows that there are real costs associated with this kind of panic, a moral climate in which stealing welfare money takes precedence over kidnapping and homicide.

And where white-collar criminals are more likely to be viewed as "bad apples" than lower-class ones are. I don't recall any 2008 Presidential candidates demonizing hedge fund managers in general on account of the sins of Bernie Madoff- even though there were far more documented (if unprosecuted) cases of THAT kind of fraud on that level, compared to Linda's compatriots in crime.  But it's much more fun, and profitable in elections, to make fun of and blame the downtrodden, and they're much less likely to hire lawyers and crisis-management firms if you even tried.

So on this last night before the last Sunday of Advent, I raise a glass to Linda Taylor- for in the ultimate exposure of HER fraud, she helped expose the even bigger fraud perpretrated on her account by the most beloved President of her era.  Maybe she can chat with him about it tonight; I suspect they're hanging out in the same level of the afterlife.

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