The Legend of the Chicago Welfare Queen

In “stump speech after stump speech,” Josh Levin
in Slate, Ronald Reagan “regaled his supporters
with the story of an Illinois woman whose feats of deception were
too amazing to be believed.”

For the record, the song predates the speeches.“In Chicago, they found a woman who
holds the record,” the former California governor declared at a
campaign rally in January 1976. “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.” As soon as he quoted that dollar amount, the
crowd gasped.

Four decades later, Reagan’s soliloquies on welfare fraud are often
remembered as shameless demagoguery. Many accounts report that
Reagan coined the term “welfare queen,” and that this woman in
Chicago was a fictional character. In 2007, the New York Times’
Paul Krugman wrote that “the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving
welfare queen [was] a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare

But the woman did exist, Levin writes, and while she certainly
wasn’t a typical welfare chisler‎, let alone a typical welfare
client, Reagan’s descriptions of her scams were mostly accurate
accounts of her activities. Yet there was much more to her criminal
career than the case that made her infamous in the ’70s:
kidnappings, con games, maybe murder. Levin’s
about her life reads like an epic Gothic saga in which
half a dozen villains turn out to be the same shape-shifting
monster; every time you think it couldn’t possibly get weirder, it

from Hit & Run

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.