A tragic Seattle story explains the decline of American welfare

The legacy of Linda “Welfare Queen” Taylor lives on in Washington state.

Linda Taylor and attorney,

Linda Taylor walks with her attorney T. Lee Boyd as they leave the Chicago Civic Center Tuesday, March 8, 1977 during a recess in her trial. Taylor would later be sentenced to serve two-to-six years in prison for theft and perjury. Mythologized as the "welfare queen," Taylor's example would later be weaponized by Republican and Democratic presidential candidates to justify slashing welfare. (Charles Knoblock/AP)

When Seattle police arrested Martha Louise White at age 17, they did so on the pretense of preventing a pandemic.

It was January 1943. A little over a year after the United States entered World War II, a public health crisis was mounting. Hundreds of thousands of new gonorrhea and syphilis cases among stateside American servicemen threatened to undermine the war effort. Local law enforcement was enlisted to stop the spread. Sex workers, real and suspected, were criminalized. And so Martha White, a mother at 14, was booked by Seattle cops on charges of disorderly conduct, administered a venereal disease screening and quarantined in a Seattle facility, where only 17% of the 2,063 patients — or was it inmates? — had any kind of infection.

“Seattle’s V.D. situation is appalling,” declared an American military doctor at the time, according to Marilyn Hegarty’s 2007 book, Victory Girls: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II. But male soldiers were not detained or disciplined. Instead, the armed forces, law enforcement, and the press created a hysteria around hookup culture, seedy jazz clubs and so-called “loose” women and girls. Before departing for Oakland, Martha White was arrested twice more in the Seattle area on vagrancy and disorderly conduct charges used to book suspected sex workers.

It was not the last time she’d be at the center of a misguided moral panic.

The rise and fall of the ‘Welfare Queen’

Thirty years and four children later, White — a light-skinned Black woman who often passes for other racial identities — lives in Chicago. Her husband is unsure of her real name, but many in her community know her as “Linda Taylor.”

When she’s pinned as a suspect in a 1974 burglary, Chicago police discover that Taylor is perpetrating welfare fraud. Using fake names and forged documents, she has filched $8,865.67 from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal cash assistance program created in 1935 by the Social Security Act. Because welfare fraud accounted for less than 1% of federal welfare expenditures, the Illinois Department of Public Aid initially looks the other way when made aware of Taylor’s grift. But Chicago Tribune journalist George Bliss seizes on the story, writing a feature about Taylor for the Sept. 29, 1974 edition of the paper.

The story is a sensation. It gawks at her dozens of aliases and addresses, her divorces and, above all, at the supposedly lavish lifestyle she lived while on the public dime. The article is syndicated, running in more than a thousand newspapers across the country. The headline in The Seattle Times installment announces, “She Makes Business of Cheating Welfare.” The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York, christens Taylor with the one alias she’s never able to shed: “Welfare Queen Arrested.”

Just as Seattle police punished her for purportedly spreading VD during an epidemic of syphilis while male soldiers went unpenalized, mass media turn Taylor into a figurehead for alleged welfare cheats and government waste. In his 2019 biography of Taylor, The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, Josh Levin describes how Cook County prosecutors spend many times more to prosecute Linda Taylor ($50,000) than she stole from the system. On March 27, 1978, she is sentenced to five years at Dwight Correctional Center in Illinois on burglary charges.

Linda Taylor was arrested for vagrancy in 1944. During the period after World War II, Seattle law enforcement routinely arrested people for suspected vagrancy and targeted women they suspected of spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Taylor was arrested, tested and quarantined by police. It was later discovered that only 17% of the 2,063 patients in the quarantine facility where Taylor was held actually had any kind of infection. (Washington State Archives Puget Sound)

By the time Taylor is incarcerated, a cadre of economics professors at nearby University of Chicago has been railing against welfare for over 20 years. Known as the “Chicago School,” their vision for America includes lowering taxes on the rich, removing regulatory restrictions on major corporations and shrinking public spending on welfare programs that had been a staple for millions of Americans since the Great Depression. Chicago School poster boy Milton Friedman’s 1951 capitalist manifesto “Neoliberalism and Its Prospects” gives the cutthroat worldview a name and some semblance of nuance. “Republicans favor collectivist measures,” Friedman wrote, “[but] there is no justification for setting a minimum wage.” Friedman contends that even American conservatives are too liberal in their support of good wages and welfare, arguing that the time was ripe for a new policy approach that breaks from the public assistance subsidies that defined macroeconomics in postwar America: “Neoliberalism is a philosophy that [can] guide the legislators of the next generation,” he wrote.

When the escalating costs of the Vietnam War cause a recession in the mid-1970s, the Chicago School gains traction among policymakers and politicians. Primary among them is California Gov. Ronald Reagan, to whom Friedman later serves as an economic adviser. Reagan never tires of repeating the myth of Linda Taylor in his unsuccessful 1976 bid to become the Republican nominee for president, and especially during his successful campaigns for president in 1980 and 1984.

Average monthly welfare payments to Americans reach an all-time high in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter. Running against him, Reagan weaponizes the story of the “Welfare Queen” to attack the perceived excesses of the welfare state — greatly exaggerating the amount Taylor stole, casually inflating it to six digits, and deploying his folksy story about “a woman in Chicago” (and her Cadillac) to rationalize slashing $140 billion from welfare programs as president in 1981.

While President Reagan spins tall tales about her, Taylor is unraveling. After her release from prison in 1980, she illegally cashes a friend’s pension checks and gets pinched. A state doctor says Taylor — a victim of child rape — exhibits traits of antisocial personality disorder, a condition characterized by dissociation and lack of remorse. She’s deemed mentally unfit to stand trial and the charges are dropped.

Taylor spends her feeble twilight years in assisted living facilities, but her legend continues to loom large over welfare policy in the United States.

On a campaign stop through Seattle on Oct. 22, 1992, Arkansas governor and presidential hopeful Bill Clinton performs a variation of the script written by Reagan: drumming up backlash against public assistance programs perceived to benefit undeserving minorities and the lazy poor. In the same city where the “Welfare Queen” was first arrested 50 years earlier, he riffs on an apocryphal anecdote: “A homeless veteran told me, ‘I oughta have the dignity of having a place to live if I’m willing to work. ‘Will you give me a country where I can work and live?’ ” This focus on strict work requirements for welfare recipients becomes the centerpiece of a new bipartisan effort to ransack welfare.

After promising on the campaign trail to “end welfare as we know it,” Clinton is elected president on Nov. 3, 1992. Two years later, Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives and hand Clinton a bill that proposes a wholesale dismantling of American welfare. Titled the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” the legislation proposes to transform AFDC — the program Linda Taylor defrauded — into a federal grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). President Clinton signs it into law on Aug. 22, 1996. In response, two of his own Department of Health and Human Services appointees resign in protest.

“I’ve devoted 30 years to doing whatever I could to help reduce poverty in America,” one of them writes. “This bill goes in the opposite direction.”

TANF prohibits anyone from receiving cash assistance for more than two consecutive years and for more than five years total over the course of one’s life. It implements strict hours-worked requirements and gives states the latitude to spend TANF funds on programs other than cash assistance. It locks the size of state TANF grants in place for perpetuity, not upwardly adjusting funding levels for population growth or even inflation.

At the end of Clinton’s second term as president, in 2000, fewer than 40% of American households in poverty receive cash assistance from TANF — down from the 1979 peak of AFDC, when over 80% of families in poverty received benefits.

On April 18, 2002, Linda Taylor dies of a heart attack at age 76. That year, average monthly welfare payments to American households reach an all-time low. The “Welfare Queen” is dead. For most Americans, so is welfare.

Welfare dwindles in Washington state

Washington is where Taylor’s lifelong tussle with the criminal justice system began. It’s also a state where her legacy is seen most sharply.

TANF was designed to kick as many people off of welfare as possible; it achieves this goal by freezing the size of state TANF grants forever. Between 1997 and 2018, state TANF grants lose 40% of their value due to inflation. In 2018, 21% of overall TANF spending in the United States is applied to cash assistance; but Washington spends only 13% of its TANF funds this way, ranking it closer to the bottom among American states (31st place) in terms of percentage of TANF dollars spent on traditional welfare.

What’s more, Washington currently spends $239 million of TANF funds on preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies among welfare recipients — more than any other state in the union and nearly double what it directs towards cash assistance.

In her 1997 book, Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts writes, “Louisiana state representative and former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke proposed paying women on welfare to take the contraceptive Norplant.” Roberts describes how Washington state lawmakers very nearly adopted a version of Duke’s proposal in the 1990s, but eventually decided on a kinder, gentler form of eugenics: providing information about Norplant to Washington women who received financial assistance. The move barely concealed the state’s political disdain for welfare recipients in the guise of well-intentioned racial Darwinism.

It was a Republican-led state House of Representatives that passed House Bill 3901, in 1997, creating Washington state’s TANF program. Called “WorkFirst,” it wears the Clintonian aspiration to dismantle welfare in its very name. And just as President Clinton ravished welfare in ways that even President Reagan did not, few political undertakings in Washington state have enjoyed as much bipartisan support as the restriction of access to welfare. In fact, since TANF was created a quarter century ago, Democrats have done no better than their conservative counterparts to deliver cash assistance to Washingtonians in need of relief.

Washington Democrats controlled the state House, Senate and governor’s office in 2008. The Great Recession presented the consummate opportunity to expand welfare benefits. Instead, the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt slashed social services and doubled down on lifetime welfare limits that kicked thousands of households off of TANF.

To their credit, Washington state’s Democratic lawmakers created the Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) during the Great Recession. The program mirrors the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and was designed to provide an average one-time payment of $350 mainly to Washingtonians making less than $50,000 a year. Over the years, lawmakers have flirted with financing it with taxes on the wealthy. But the WFTC has remained unfunded, and therefore unimplemented. In a state where more than 437,000 tenants relied on debt and loans to pay rent in 2020, Washington’s Working Families Tax Credit is the biggest empty bank account of them all.

With America mired in a pandemic that has no end in sight, the need for robust cash assistance programs is as clear now as it was during the Great Depression, when AFDC and Social Security were created. In December, Seattle City Council unanimously passed a joint proposal with Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to provide $2.17 million of cash assistance to hospitality workers whose wages have been impacted by COVID-19. And in the current Washington legislative session, state Sen. Joe Nguyen is sponsoring Senate Bill 5214, which undoes harsh penalties that prevent access to TANF funds.

Meanwhile, with dozens of supporters in the state House of Representatives — including sponsorship by Rep. My-Linh Thai, D-Bellevue — HB 1297 would finally fund the Working Families Tax Credit, providing cash assistance to over 480,000 Washingtonians. These attempts to repair the tattered social safety net show that the neoliberal policy approach that guided Reagan and Clinton may finally be weakening. (Disclosure: I work for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, which is involved in advocating for the Working Families Tax Credit bill.)

Still, we see a restrictive conception of welfare in rhetorical tics that spoil the speeches of even our most progressive lawmakers: politicians often center “working families,” pleading that “nobody who works should be in poverty,” subliminally elevating the “deserving” poor over their underemployed counterparts.

A 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute showed that Washington’s wealth gap is the 10th largest in the nation, with the top 1% of earners making 24.2 times more than the other 99%. By spending nearly 10 times as much on the annual state Department of Corrections budget ($1.2 billion) as they do on TANF cash assistance payments ($142 million), state lawmakers send a loud and clear message about their preferred way of addressing Washington’s socioeconomic disparities.

Seattle’s visionary welfare experiment

Born 1926 in Golddust, Tennessee, Linda Taylor was a vagrant youth when she joined the Great Migration of millions of Black Americans fleeing racial oppression in the Jim Crow South. Incarcerated in Seattle in 1943 because she was a suspected sex worker accused of spreading syphilis, Taylor came of age in a city that deputized the Seattle Police Department to handle noncriminal social welfare and public health concerns among at-risk youth. In a June 27, 1943, Seattle Times article (“Kimsey Wants Action on Jail”), Seattle Police Chief Herbert Kimsey begged local political leadership to change course: “Women not convicted of crimes are being housed with those serving sentences,” complained Kimsey. “Facilities for treatment should be situated away from city jails for the care of these women.”

In the 1940s, Washington was a state where racial discrimination in welfare and policing dimmed the socioeconomic prospects of its Black residents. “As New Dealers set up the federal welfare system,” Roberts writes in Killing the Black Body, “Northern Democrats struck a deal with their Southern brethren that systematically denied Blacks eligibility for social insurance benefits.” By the time Taylor landed in Chicago, Democrats were laying the groundwork for Republican exploitation of her story: a 1965 report by Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Moynihan that argued “matriarchal households” and “welfare dependency” — rather than structural racism and white supremacy — were the core reasons behind Black poverty.

But in the years between the release of the “The Moynihan Report” in 1965 and the Chicago Tribune story about Linda “Welfare Queen” Taylor in 1974, Seattle began to take part in a visionary welfare project. Seeing both the successes and limitations of AFDC and Social Security, the Nixon Administration selected the city to participate in an “Income Maintenance Experiment.”

Between 1971 and 1982, 4,800 Seattle households were given approximately $30,000 a year. No strings attached, no work requirements, no means tested, just money. Though skeptics feared the program would disincentivize its recipients from seeking employment, it resulted in only a marginal decline in workforce participation — most of it among students and expectant mothers. The program was short-lived. The power of its example lives on.

Washingtonians deserve a state where they aren’t blamed for the moves they make in an unequal status quo, a state where people who fall through the safety net are not ensnared by the police. Most of us know somebody like Linda Taylor — the problematic progeny of a broken society who learn early to take what they can when they don’t have what they need. Washington politicians were the first to fail Taylor. All these years later, her story remains an American tragedy. But not more so than our failure to learn the right lessons from it.

Correction: An earlier version of this article alluded to a public health crisis mounting in the United states two years after the country entered World War II. It was 13 months, not two years. We regret the error.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Shaun Scott

Shaun Scott

Shaun Scott a Seattle-based writer who works for the Statewide Poverty Action Network and is campaign coordinator for Nikkita Oliver’s city council campaign.