Culture

The Legend of the Chicago Welfare Queen

The true-crime story as an epic Gothic saga

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In "stump speech after stump speech," Josh Levin writes 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 fraud."

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 story 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 does.