The Queen offers a compelling new look at Linda Taylor, the woman dubbed the "welfare queen" in the mid-1970s, after public awareness of her welfare fraud turned her into a political prop. Slate editor Josh Levin makes a convincing argument that Taylor's case was drastically oversimplified and used to paint ordinary welfare recipients in a negative light, eventually justifying cuts to welfare and other government assistance programs. The Queen portrays Taylor as an utterly singular individual whose crimes might have included murder. The "welfare queen" stereotype doesn't begin to explain her complicated, disturbing life.
In roughly the first half of the book, Levin approaches the welfare fraud case that helped turn Taylor into a national symbol. He shows how politicians, especially Ronald Reagan, used her to paint a misleading portrait of the undeserving poor and to engage in dog-whistle racism. As one state senator said: " 'Welfare cheaters' has become the new code word for the poor, for minorities in general and those temporarily down on their luck." In the second half, Levin digs into Taylor's background and tracks her life after the case. He finds a bewildering woman who lied incessantly, used dozens of fake names, manipulated and took advantage of vulnerable people, kidnapped children and was potentially party to multiple murders. Levin finds that her crimes went far beyond welfare fraud, but the justice system was more interested in her politically useful misdeeds. The Queen dispels the "welfare queen" myth by showing how anomalous Taylor was, representative of no one other than herself. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.