In 2019 the Urban Institute conducted an analysis of the welfare system in the United States. It found that at least fifty-nine million Americans were on some form of public assistance mostly obtained through six major welfare programs in the country. The people in need of assistance will vary but the image that was once presented to the public stands in stark contrast to reality. In his first run for office of the president, California Governor Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) (R-CA) used the welfare system as part of his program to appeal to conservative voters. Unbeknownst to voters, Reagan had set his focus on a woman in Chicago who would later be called the “Welfare Queen”. The truth is not as glamorous and far more bizarre but that did not deter Reagan from using the case of Linda Taylor (1926-2002) who represented all that was wrong with the system in his eyes. His first campaign for president failed but he mounted a second campaign that culminated with the defeat of sitting President James E. “Jimmy” Carter in 1980. By then Taylor was an afterthought but her life was far from over. In fact, as Josh Levin shows in this biography, her life was full of mystery, tragedy, and dark moments.
The book begins with the demise of a woman named Patricia Parks on the night of June 15, 1975. The cause of death is unfortunate but common. But what raised suspicion is the woman who was last seen with her, Linda Taylor. And through Levin’s re-telling of Taylor’s life story, this was one of multiple instances in which she had proximity to a person before their unexpected death. To be fair, Taylor was never charged with any murder. She was placed under investigation more than once, and those charges related directly to her abuse of the welfare system. The unbelievable story is told here in a book that refutes stereotypes, discusses the issue of race, and exposes the faults in the public assistance system.
Prior to reading the book, I was not aware of Taylor’s personal life. I had placed the book on my wish list and realized recently that I had yet to explore it. It is not a standard biography in the sense that there’s a straightforward chronological history. The reason, as Levin shows, is that parts of her life are unknown with little records available to piece together her past. However, do does an incredible job of tracing her family history that takes us to the Deep South where the town of Cullman, Alabama, a placed once called “Sundown Town” for reasons explained in the story. Readers familiar with the South will know what it implies. Taylor was born Martha Louise White and from the beginning, Jim Crow and racial discrimination became daily realities. Martha’s arrival proves to be a complicated issue and as we see later in the book in court testimony, the family found itself immersed in a scandal. The facts are revealed by her uncle Hubert Mooney, whose frank talk will make readers recoil. Today such talk would never be permitted in a courtroom, but 1964 was quite a different time in America. Admittedly, keeping track of the family members and Linda’s movements as a child is challenging but through no fault of the author. The family itself is far from intact and adept at keeping secrets. The instability at home and treatment by relatives does provide insight into how Taylor later came to view herself and the world she was navigating.
As I read the book, I did feel compassion for her and cannot imagine the humiliation she had to endure. However, I could not ignore her dark side that drew the inquiry of state investigators and law enforcement. Further, her exploitation of the welfare system which allowed her a life of luxury, and her relentless attempts at taking advantage of others’ misfortune, showed that Taylor had learned to master deceit as she used fake names, addresses and misled state agencies. The story within is simply spellbinding and it seemed as if no one could completely unravel the mystery of Linda Taylor. The sad stories of her former husbands and children she claimed are examples of the emotional and mental damage she caused as she continued her life of deception. The story of one son, Paul, will surely catch the attention of readers. And when the situation came, Taylor also used those closest to her to become conspirators in her plans. As Levin shows, Taylor once went this far in her scheme:
“Taylor had used the alias Sandra Brownlee—her daughter’s name—to steal public aid money. A month after Judge Mark Jones gave the older woman three to seven years, Sandra herself would plead guilty to receiving illegal welfare payments from the State of Illinois.”
Investigators eventually do catch up with her but like a thief in the night, Taylor skipped out of town more than once, becoming a fugitive. And while on the run, more victims turned up as Linda continued to find ways to exploit unsuspecting people who took in the newcomer with kindness. The story of James and Mildred Markham left me speechless. And I had to remind myself that this is not fiction. Taylor had no remorse and resorted to extreme measures to continue her lifestyle. However, time was running out and in 1994, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida finally put an end to her reign of terror. Though she did not serve prison time, she had become a shell of her former self, and the rest of the book follows her decline. We can only guess as to how disabled Taylor truly was but those who took care of her in her final years confirmed that she was indeed declining rapidly. Levin explored the concept she was faking her disability and went as far as questioning staff members at the mental hospital who were willing to speak. The end came for Taylor on April 18, 2002, at the age of seventy-six. By the time Taylor had passed, she was forgotten and the concept of welfare queen a talking point of the bygone Reagan era. But as Levin shows, her life story is one that serves as a textbook case of the importance of a stable home, guidance from those with our best interests at heart, and a legal system that enforces checks and balances. There is more to Taylor’s life that we will never learn of, but Josh Levin has captured her life for an eternity in this book that is full of suspense from start to finish. Highly recommended.
If you like this book, Levin also authored an article for Slate Magazine titled “The Welfare Queen“, which was published on December 19, 2013. It is full of information and photos match names with faces, and even includes a statement from Reagan in October 1976. It is the perfect complement to this solid account of Taylor’s life and exploits.