Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Queen by Josh Levin

A lot of us are familiar with the phrase, "Welfare Queen." It's a phrase conservative people like to toss around as a reason to deny people food stamps or government-subsidized care, because low-income people might use the tax dollars to buy caviar and a yacht. Never mind the fact that it's actually pretty difficult to defraud most food programs, especially SNAP (having worked in retail), where registers will not even let you ring up non-eligible items.

THE QUEEN is about the woman who contributed to the coining of the phrase, and ironically, the welfare fraud was the least of her crimes. Racism got her on the hook for the crimes but, even more ironically, racism prevented her from being charged for the more serious of what she did-- potential murder, estate fraud, and even kidnapping. Linda Taylor was an ethnically ambiguous woman who was operating under multiple aliases, laying claim to various ethnic heritage, and had numerous spouses and children-- imaginary and not-- in order to get thousands of dollars from the government, and live an outrageous and incredible lifestyle.

I was surprised by the length of this book (almost 400 pages with the bibliography and the sources), and wondered how this woman's life and crimes could possibly fill a whole book. The first half is pretty good and it's clear how much time and effort Josh Levin poured in to researching THE QUEEN, from the police officer who helped bring her down, to Ronald Reagan's staunchly adversarial approach to government aid, to Linda Taylor herself, a woman who was easy to paint as the villain to an aggrieved populace that was becoming increasingly aware of the wage disparity between the top earners and the bottom earners as poverty itself became a partisan issue.

Linda Taylor is a fascinating individual and while I don't support what she did at all, it was interesting to see how she was able to get away with her crimes. Social media has allowed for a different kind of fraud, so it was kind of eye-opening to see that people have been doing such scams for years, albeit in a different way (and maybe in a way that was slower to catch without the instantaneous nature of the internet). She played cat and mouse with the newspaper reporters and the detectives chasing her in plain sight for years, seemingly assured that she would never face any real consequences, and the public interest in her case ended up making her a byword for people who were willing to cheat the system and a scapegoat for the crime to satisfy a xenophobic and tight-fisted population.

The second half of the book is much slower, as it's about Linda Taylor's actual history, childhood, and then, later, her life after the trial that ended up making her (in)famous. This part was dull and felt more like an opportunity for the author to show off his research, and was not very interesting or engaging. THE QUEEN could have been a much shorter book, and a much more effective book because of it, but instead, Levin chose to draw things out and ruin the effect he started with the first half of THE QUEEN. I ended the book feeling dissatisfied and bored.

Overall, I would say that this is an interesting glimpse into the 1960s/70s, as well as the inherent racism that was still quite prominent in the system, and it gives the story behind one of the go-to dog-whistling terms that is thrown around to this day with the relevant historical context removed.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!   

2 out of 5 stars

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