Most of us have heard of the imaginary “welfare queen” used as the poster child of welfare fraud.

Most of us have heard of the imaginary “welfare queen” used as the poster child of welfare fraud.

President Reagan made the phrase famous in a 1976 speech at a campaign rally, but the term wasn’t invented by Reagan. It probably was used first in a Chicago Tribune article in 1974 by George Bliss in a story about a Chicago woman named Linda Taylor.

Taylor was a con artist, a criminal and a thief and was investigated in the 1970s for possible homicide, kidnapping and baby trafficking. She was caught and convicted of welfare fraud in 1977 and sent to prison. Although welfare fraud was only a minor part of her activities, her criminal behavior largely was ignored to emphasize the “broken” welfare system, which was primed to become a political hot point.

A great deal of media searching failed to turn up a real “welfare queen.” Taylor’s background and history fills many pages, and her illegal exploits likely became the basis for embellishment for welfare fraud by Reagan’s speechwriters or Reagan himself and became an effective and memorable political anecdote.

This mythical “welfare queen” was said, according to Reagan, to have used “80 aliases, 30 addresses and 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security (benefits), 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.”

In reality, it was four aliases and $8,000, for which Taylor was convicted. Her exorbitant income came from other illegal scams, not a simple scheme to game the welfare system for which she was caught. Her more serious criminal offenses largely were ignored so she could be convicted on welfare fraud, which was more likely to enrage voters, according to an investigation by George Bliss of the Chicago Tribune.

The “welfare queen” was described as showing up in a pink Cadillac wearing furs and diamonds to collect her welfare checks. While some of this was true of Taylor, she wasn’t African-American as the subliminal image was created in the minds of the public.

Worse, focus on the mythical “welfare queen” diverted public attention from the ongoing insider trading in the stock market that was stealing thousands of times more money from the American people than a few welfare cheats. It’s estimated that money lost to welfare cheating is less than 2 percent including errors made by the agency itself, as reported by the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

The overwhelming majority of welfare monies go to those in need. The USDA reports that, in 2013, the percentage of households receiving food stamps with children was 44.8 percent, disabled non-elderly individuals was 20.3 percent and elderly individuals was 17.4 percent. All together, that’s 82.5 percent.

There also is misunderstanding regarding benefits received by illegal immigrants. Undocumented immigrants aren’t allowed to obtain government benefits. Legal immigrants can’t collect food stamps until they have been in the country at least five years. Some immigrant children receive benefits, but at a reduced rate, and family income is considered. Because most immigrants don’t come into the country not to work, many receive nothing if their income is taken into account.

Ironically, a large amount of taxpayer money is spent trying to prevent or identify welfare fraud. In 2011, Missouri passed a law requiring screening and testing for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) applicants. In 2014, there were 38,970 welfare applicants, of which 446 were tested for drug use. Forty-eight tested positive, which is about 10 percent. The budgeted cost for the 2014 testing program was $336,297.

No one gets rich on welfare. The two largest programs are AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and food stamps. Approximately 90 percent of those receiving cash assistance benefits are single mothers.

The maximum amount is about $400. Imagine trying to pull yourself up by those bootstraps to pay food, rent, transportation and child care while you look for a job.

The stereotype of the “welfare queen” has endured well beyond its intended use, but remains because of political expediency. It’s a stereotype that is sexist, suggestively racist and undermines the legitimacy of cash assistance programs for those who truly need them, mostly children.
Mike Davis writes a column for the Daily News.