The Original 'Welfare Queen' It's a pernicious stereotype, but it was coined in reference to a real woman named Linda Taylor. But her misdeeds were far more numerous and darker than welfare fraud. This week: how politicians used one outlier's story to turn the public against government programs for the poor.
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The Original 'Welfare Queen'

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The Original 'Welfare Queen'

The Original 'Welfare Queen'

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: It was the fall of 1974 when the Chicago Tribune ran a story with this lead - Linda Taylor received Illinois welfare checks and food stamps, even though she was driving three 1974 autos - a Cadillac, a Lincoln and a Chevrolet station wagon - claimed to own four South Side buildings and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii.

That story went on to say that she had at least 27 different aliases. She had dozens of addresses. She had three Social Security cards. And they, like, really wanted you to understand that she was trifling, right? (Laughter) So they mentioned that she had recently gotten married to a sailor who was 20 years her junior.

MERAJI: Wait. What's trifling about that?

DEMBY: Oh, because they were just trying to make her seem...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter) They were just trying to make her seem that, you know, she was, like, out there.

MERAJI: Oh. Got it.

DEMBY: So it didn't take long for this local Chicago story to go whatever the 1974 version of viral is. It ran on newswires, in papers across the country. And for politicians who wanted to cut welfare spending, including a certain California governor and presidential hopeful named Ronald Reagan - he keeps coming up on our episodes, Shereen.

MERAJI: Yes, he does.

DEMBY: So the story of this woman's grift and her profligacy was a godsend. She became a staple of Ronald Reagan's speeches, with the amount of money she allegedly stole from the state growing every time he told the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: She has used 127 names so far, posed as a mother of 14 children at one time, seven at another, signed up twice with the same caseworker in four days and once, while on welfare, posed as an open-heart surgeon, complete with office. She has three new cars, a full-length mink coat. And her take is estimated at a million dollars.

MERAJI: When another newspaper picked up Linda Taylor's story, it ran the headline "Welfare Queen Arrested." And with that headline, there was a new stereotype. From there, the so-called welfare queen would become one of the most enduring and pernicious stereotypes in American politics. And for a brief moment, the woman who inspired that term, Linda Taylor, was a media sensation. She was unapologetic and unabashed when she showed up at her trial for welfare fraud wearing furs, a big hat, elbow-length leather gloves, looking very fabulous.

So for a lot of people, you know, she was the shameless embodiment of everything wrong with the welfare system. But then she disappeared from public view almost as quickly as she appeared.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: OK, y'all, so a lot of the details about this original welfare queen were exaggerated, or they were just wrong - like the amount of money that she supposedly took from the state of Illinois. But for all the attention she got for welfare fraud, like, Linda Taylor was doing stuff that was way grimier. She seemed to be this pathological liar. She scammed everybody she met, including her many husbands, who all knew her by her fake assumed names. But she was also a serial kidnapper. And it's very possible that she did stuff that was much worse. There were lots of people who she befriended who mysteriously turned up dead.

And although Linda Taylor embodied this anti-black stereotype, her actual racial identity, it was, like - it was a little bit more ambiguous, a little bit more fraught. Linda Taylor changed races as quickly and often as she changed names and addresses, just depending on whatever the scam required.

JOSH LEVIN: Taylor posed as a nurse. She also posed as a heart surgeon, a voodoo priestess. She would claim to have all these degrees from universities in the Caribbean. She legitimately had - or claimed to have - dozens of lives and identities.

MERAJI: That's Josh Levin, the author of "The Queen," which is a new book about the fascinating and disturbing life of Linda Taylor. And Gene talked with Josh about the original welfare queen and how politicians used her story to turn the public against programs for the poor.

DEMBY: But, y'all, before we get to Linda Taylor, we need to back up a little bit and just talk about welfare. I guess this is an explanatory comma.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Welfare might refer to a few different programs that were launched during the New Deal - Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and disability and unemployment benefits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-stricken old age. Seems to me that if...

DEMBY: But the program that most folks refer to as welfare when they're talking about the poor was originally called Aid to Dependent Children. And it was a program that gave money to poor families where the fathers were dead or gone or they couldn't work. So at the very beginning, the popular face of Aid to Dependent Children was poor white widows from rural communities.

In many states, especially in the South, black women weren't even allowed to get welfare benefits because, you know, racism. But even besides, like, the structural hurdles to just getting the benefits, there were these racist feelings about the kinds of people who were truly deserving of government hope and the kinds of people who were not.

MERAJI: By the 1960s, more black people had moved out of the South and into big cities in the North and in the West, where the welfare rules were less discriminatory. And so black folks were able to use welfare. But those people were treated with suspicion and even hostility by local officials and the public.

At the same time, many of the poor black women in big cities on welfare started organizing into local groups, calling for better treatment from their caseworkers, increased benefits. Some were even calling for a universal basic income - that's where the government guarantees that all its citizens get a certain amount of annual money.

DEMBY: I didn't know about any of this until this episode, Shereen. But that was the genesis of the welfare rights movement, which I had never heard of. And the leaders of the Welfare Rights Movement - which coincided with LBJ's War on Poverty, which coincided with the apex of the civil rights movement - they wanted to treat poverty as a women's issue. One of those organizations, the National Welfare Rights Organization, is considered by some to be the largest black feminist organization in the history of the country.

MERAJI: By the 1970s, with the economy slowing down and the public getting tired of stories of urban unrest, people were primed to believe even outlandish stories about poor city folks getting rich off taxpayer money. So y'all know where this is going. So that story that ran in the Chicago Tribune in 1974 about a spendthrift moocher caking off on furs and on cars in one of the nation's most well-known black neighborhoods, it just had people feeling some type of way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVIN: In the '70s, there was this feeling that welfare had become a problem. It had become a crisis. Reagan, when he was governor, referred to welfare as a cancer eating at our vitals. And there was also a sense because the economy was bad at that time - inflation was really high - and so those two threads kind of converge. States don't want to be spending as much money. People are mad because their paychecks aren't, you know, buying as much as they used to. Who's causing this problem? It's black women on welfare. Who exemplifies that problem? Linda Taylor.

MERAJI: The forgotten story of Linda Taylor after the break.

DEMBY: Sit tight, y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

Josh Levin is the national editor at Slate, and he's the author of the new book "The Queen." He also hosts a podcast with the same name. And he recently sat down with Gene to talk about Linda Taylor and the politics of welfare.

DEMBY: In the media, she's portrayed as this sort of shapeshifting, chameleonic grifter, right? But who was Linda Taylor?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVIN: The way that she was described in the '70s was that she was this woman who had kind of come out of nowhere. But she had grown up in the Deep South. She was born in a town called Golddust, Tenn., in 1926. And her mother was a white woman who'd grown up in Alabama and grown up kind of in the most racist part of Alabama, in an area of the state where white separatism was really the official policy. And her stepfather was a laborer on cotton plantations.

DEMBY: Was she black, then? Like, her mom was white. But what do we know about her father?

LEVIN: So here's what I can tell you, Gene.

(LAUGHTER)

LEVIN: She was listed as white on the census in 1940 in Arkansas. She later in 1948 in California, when she got married there, identified herself as Hawaiian. And then in Chicago in the 1960s, she claimed that she was black.

DEMBY: So a detective quoted by UPI, the wire service, said that, quote, "her skin is sallow - like, a medium yellow. She has no features that make her peculiar to any racial background. So she passes as Filipino. She puts on a black wig and becomes a negro. And with other makeup and wigs, she passes for white," end quote.

So you have these two ideas happening in these stories, right? Like, there's this woman who was using this racial ambiguity to scam people and also that she's a Cadillac-driving welfare queen from the South Side of Chicago, which is clearly meant to racialize her as black.

LEVIN: Yeah. So what was going on there - I think - is that, in the mid-'70s, when Reagan talks about a woman in Chicago, even the term woman in Chicago is racialized in some ways when he talks about that. And it was a way for him - I think - to talk about race without having to mention race.

DEMBY: So what was happening in the intervening years between when she leaves the South and when she takes up this, like, criminal career in Chicago?

LEVIN: So she first goes out west. She goes to Washington state, and she goes to California. And when she's in both of those places, she is arrested on charges related to prostitution. And my sense is she was somebody who was systematically denied education when she was a child because of...

DEMBY: Because she was black.

LEVIN: ...Her race. Yeah. And, you know, when she's out in California in the '40s, she did not have a stable existence there. She ends up moving back to the Deep South for a while, around where she grew up. And then she heads north in the late '50s and early '60s to Illinois. And she moved to the South Side of Chicago. She's there for 15 or 20 years. It's the place where she kind of establishes a foothold in the world.

DEMBY: So if you take us back to the fall of 1974 - right? - when newspapers around the country are starting to write about this woman, what were those stories saying?

LEVIN: They were saying that she had used dozens of different aliases to scam the Illinois Department of Public Aid to get welfare checks under different names at different addresses. And they said that the fruits for her were luxury cars. She had a Cadillac. She claimed to own four buildings on the South Side. And the first Tribune story about her mentioned she was about to leave on a Hawaiian vacation. So the suggestion here was not only was she scamming the government and scamming taxpayers, she was becoming rich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: And it's in one of those headlines in which someone uses the term welfare queen for first time, right?

LEVIN: Yeah. The first time that I found was early October 1974. It was a newspaper in Rochester that used the term welfare queen the first time. And then about 10 days after that, the Chicago Tribune put it in a headline. And the Chicago Tribune really popularized the term in connection with her and used it in more than 40 different stories...

DEMBY: Wow.

LEVIN: ...Over the course of a couple years. So the Tribune wasn't the first, but they were the ones that really cemented that term and also cemented the connection of the term to the specific woman and what she'd done.

DEMBY: During her moment of media infamy, she was doing a lot to inflame it, right? She was showing up to court in, like, the flashiest stuff, right? I mean, she was...

LEVIN: Yeah.

DEMBY: She - and you almost could not have found someone who, like, better sort of embodied these, like, racist fears about someone living off the dole and living high off the dole, right?

LEVIN: Yeah. Her defense attorney, Skip Gant, told me that one of his great frustrations in representing her in the '70s when she was on trial for welfare fraud was that he could not get her to appear demure in court. He asked her to tone down what she wore because he knew, you know, this was a jury that was three-quarters white. He knew that there was a risk that she would be perceived as the woman that people thought that she was - the Cadillac-driving welfare queen.

But he said that she refused to tone down the way she dressed. She would still wear fur coats. And he believes that she had this need to be defiant - to kind of thumb her nose at society and at her critics; that that was, for whatever reason, more important to her than following her lawyer's advice and appearing to be a conservative - You know, he described as, I wanted her to look like a lady who worked for the IRS. Like, she was not going to look that way.

DEMBY: She was most famous for the welfare fraud stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: But in your initial write up in Slate, you write that she was implicated in this infamous child kidnapping.

LEVIN: Yeah. So I should say that there's a lot that we don't know. She was arrested for kidnapping in Chicago in 1967 in connection to a case where a little girl, who was in her care, that was given to her by the girl's mother - that she just took the child and wouldn't give the kid back. And then there were other cases where she would just show up with kids that hadn't belonged to her - that they would appear and disappear. And there were several documented cases and then others that I was told about where she was never arrested or charged - where she took other people's children.

And you mentioned the 1964 kidnapping from a hospital in Chicago, which was a huge national story and remains unsolved. The kid's name was Paul Joseph Fronczak. This was a kid who was a day-old, who was taken from his mother's arms in the maternity ward in this hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. The woman left and was never seen again. The child was never seen again. Linda Taylor, at around that time, told people that she was a nurse. She dressed as a nurse. She lived in the area at the time. There were claims that someone using her - one of her aliases and fitting her description had been in around the hospital at the time. A decade later, a man that she was living with said that he believed that she had done it. But there's nothing there that's solid and ironclad. But if I was investigating the case back in the '60s, I definitely would've wanted to talk to her.

DEMBY: But no one hunted her down.

LEVIN: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So there were the kidnappings but there were also the mysterious deaths.

LEVIN: Yeah. So in 1975, Taylor was out on bond. She'd been arrested for welfare fraud in '74. And she had become known as the welfare queen in '74. She gets out on bail. She moves in with this woman named Patricia Parks, who lived on the South Side of Chicago. This was a friend that she had met at church. And Patricia Parks was sick, and Taylor said that she could come in and help take care of her. And when she moved in, Parks started getting sicker and sicker.

Then, at a certain point, Patricia created a will that gave everything to Taylor. While all this is happening, she's getting sicker. And she dies in June of 1975, and she is found to have overdosed on barbiturates. This is extremely suspicious. And the person who had reported the death was Linda Taylor, her friend who she had just signed her house over to. And it's investigated as a potential homicide. It's looked into. But eventually, the prosecutor - same guy who was prosecuting her for welfare fraud - decides there's not enough evidence to charge her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LEVIN: She did not at least end up getting the woman's estate, but Patricia Parks' family believed that Taylor killed her. You know, at the time - and this is what the family told me - the potential killing of a black woman in Chicago was just, like, not a story that was of national interest or even local interest for the predominantly white newspapers, whereas welfare fraud...

DEMBY: ...But welfare fraud perpetrated by a black woman.

LEVIN: Yeah, Taylor was the welfare queen. She wasn't a killer or a kidnapper. Like, that actually - whether it was for Ronald Reagan or Illinois politicians, it's like, that doesn't really help sell the storyline. And so it was just really erased from her story. So when she gets convicted of welfare fraud and sent to prison in Illinois - she goes in 1978 - that was, as far as I was able to find in my reporting, the first time that she had actually done a, like, long-term hitch in prison. And then, she essentially ceased to exist.

And the interesting thing is that the story about her - the story that Reagan tells or that gets told in the press - is really fixed in time. It never changes. Even though it would kind of potentially help his story, Reagan doesn't talk about her trial - doesn't talk about her being convicted. He just talks about how many different names she used, how much money she stole. Like, that's the important stuff. Anything that, like, happened after that is just kind of seen as irrelevant.

DEMBY: Even the more nefarious stuff. Even though that stuff was, like, obviously, much more consequential to actual people's lives.

LEVIN: Yeah. And it actually helps emphasize the point that she was an outlier. Welfare fraud is a thing that happens. The thing that does not typically happen is that someone kidnaps people, murders people and also is - yeah, maybe they're stealing some welfare money too. If you have the full picture, she doesn't stand for anything but herself, right?

DEMBY: So how does the rhetoric around Linda Taylor, the welfare queen, and sort of this whole sort of pathology that she's supposed to represent - how does that inform Reagan's policies? And later, how does that get us to welfare reform in 1996 under Bill Clinton?

LEVIN: So in 1976, when Ronald Reagan is running for president for the first time - he had been a two-term governor in California. But if you look at the early stories from his candidacy, it was a joke. Like, people didn't think he was a serious candidate. He was still kind of seen as that guy who used to be in bad movies. And welfare reform was a thing he could point to from his tenure in California as a big political accomplishment of his. And so when he started his candidacy in New Hampshire in January 1976, he talked about welfare because it was a way for him to talk about an issue that angered kind of his base. And it was also an issue that played up his executive experience as governor. And so he talked about it a lot. He talked about it throughout the campaign.

And even though he lost in 1976 - he didn't get the Republican nomination - it helped kind of burnish his credentials as a conservative and as somebody who'd accomplished something politically. And so when he runs again in 1980, he continues to talk about Taylor. And then when he's elected, he pushes a budget that's very harsh in terms of cutting the two biggest direct aid programs for the poor - food stamps and aid to families with dependent children. And as he's going around and advocating for this plan, he tells a group of newspaper editors in 1981, you know, there's a lot of fraud and abuse that we have in the system. And you saw that with the woman in Chicago - the welfare queen. And that was effective for him rhetorically. Those cuts passed.

DEMBY: And there were politicians, you write in the book, that - who were trying to, like, thread this needle. Like, OK, welfare is important because people need it. But also, there are bad people out there who are trying to cheat the system.

LEVIN: Yeah, that's right. This idea of the truly needy comes up repeatedly over decades. You have the people that we view as the deserving poor. Then you have the people who are the undeserving poor - people who are lying to get money because they don't want to work.

DEMBY: So how does someone like Bill Clinton - this third-wave Democrat - how does he metabolize the lessons from Reagan and the sort of anti-welfare sentiment?

LEVIN: When Clinton ran in 1992, the most popular phrase that he would use in his campaign speeches was, end welfare as we know it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: For so long, government has failed us. And one of its worst failures has been welfare. I have a plan to end welfare as we know it, to break the cycle of welfare dependency. It's time to make welfare what it should be - a second chance not a way of life.

LEVIN: As opposed to saying a woman in Chicago is driving a Cadillac, with Clinton, end welfare as we know it could mean literally anything...

DEMBY: Right.

LEVIN: ...to anyone. And so this was the Clintonian way of triangulation. Certain people would view it as, let's kick everyone off welfare. Certain people would view it as, maybe let's give more training to people who are on welfare. Maybe do these jobs programs, where folks can kind of get a leg up. And that message was really effective. And once he gets in office in '92, they decide to prioritize health care. Welfare kind of gets put on the backburner. But then in 1994, that's when the Republican takeover in Congress happens...

DEMBY: Right.

LEVIN: ...when Newt Gingrich comes on the scene. And then Clinton is put in the position of, oh, you said you wanted to end welfare as we know it. Let's work on that together. And they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: From now on, our nation's answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare. It will be the dignity, the power and the ethic of work. Today we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be - a second chance not a way of life.

LEVIN: The Clinton welfare reform was a bipartisan effort to, essentially, end aid to families to dependent children, replace it with a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. And that word temporary is very key. The idea was it was going to be a program that you could get for brief periods of your life. And there were going to be job requirements. And this was something that was very popular with voters - the idea that we're not going to support people permanently.

DEMBY: So Taylor becomes a sort of very racialized figure. And then people sort of latch onto her. And they used her as an example of all the things wrong with welfare. And then by the time you get to Clinton 20 years later, it's still racialized but in this much more abstract way. It's harder to see, like, the way the rhetoric is about race and about the sort of suspicions about black mothers. But that's still informing what happens in 1996, right?

LEVIN: It is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LILLIE HARDEN: My name is Lillie Harden. And I'm from North Little Rock, Ark. I am here today to talk about how much getting off assistance and getting a job meant to me and my childrens...

LEVIN: At the Rose Garden ceremony for the bill signing in 1996, the woman who introduced Bill Clinton was a black woman who was a former welfare recipient named Lillie Harden, who was from Arkansas, where Clinton had been governor. And she was presented as essentially the anti-Linda Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARDEN: I enrolled in Project Success. The program taught me how to present myself. Two months later, after training, I got my first job.

LEVIN: That this was a woman who, due to programs that Clinton had fostered in Arkansas, been able to get off of welfare. And she, on this stage, credits Clinton for helping her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARDEN: I first met 10 years ago the man who started my success and beginning of my children's future, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton.

LEVIN: She was the new image of the black woman who didn't want to be on welfare. And Harden's story is way more complicated than was presented in that ceremony in 1996. She had actually not had a smooth path where she was on welfare and then she got a job, and then she was off permanently.

Her real story was a lot more common - where she would be on public assistance, would have temporary work and then would be off. And so the Harden story was presented, as these kind of political anecdotes so often are, in this very kind of smoothed-down, simple form.

DEMBY: So Linda Taylor has this long legacy that she is probably very indifferent about, right? What happened to her?

LEVIN: Almost immediately after she gets convicted of welfare fraud and sent to prison in Illinois, just it's not only that she vanishes from kind of public discourse - she's not written about as a figure of journalistic interest anymore - the awareness that she had ever been a person who existed in the world totally vanishes. There are people writing in the early '80s who say that she never existed. And this is used as a political cudgel against Reagan. Reagan, known as somebody who would exaggerate for effect, would tell tall tales. Oftentimes, folks in the press who were critics of Reagan's would say, the Chicago welfare queen who did not exist.

And while people are saying this, Linda Taylor is living in Florida under a whole set of different names. She's gotten out of prison, and she starts perpetrating all of these new scams in her kind of, like, late career criminal phase. Eventually, she's charged federally for stealing a woman's pension checks over a course of many years, a woman who Taylor had represented as her mother, sometimes represented as her grandmother, and a woman who had died under mysterious, suspicious circumstances after Taylor had taken out life insurance policies in her name.

So Taylor is found to have been stealing her pension checks. And she gets caught up in the federal criminal justice system and the federal mental health system. And eventually she's ruled incompetent to stand trial in the '90s. And she's released, first into a mental health facility and then into the custody of her children. And then she dies in Chicago in 2002. And she would have been 76 years old.

DEMBY: Josh Levin is the national editor for Slate. His podcast is called "The Queen." And his book, on which that podcast is based, is "The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind An American Myth." Josh, appreciate you, man. Thank you for coming in.

LEVIN: Thank you so much, Gene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Shereen, Linda Taylor died under an assumed name, Constance Loyd - one of her many assumed names.

MERAJI: She was scamming till the very end.

DEMBY: Yup.

MERAJI: Here we have this outlier being used to scare white people when the people that were most harmed by her actions were black people.

DEMBY: Yeah. You know, there's that thing, which comes up a lot in our episodes. But also, as Josh mentions, there's all the political and policy fallout from her case. So after Linda Taylor was convicted for welfare fraud, the state of Illinois just started going after people - like, the other people that were supposedly welfare queens and welfare cheats. A local newspaper in Chicago would just literally run a list of names of people who were charged with welfare fraud, like, just as a blotter.

MERAJI: Wow.

DEMBY: And a lot of those people who were arrested and who went to jail were just folks who took on, like, odd jobs on the side or whatever just to get extra cash to make ends meet. So - because welfare benefits are not a whole lot of money. And as Josh told me later, welfare benefits are not tied to inflation, so the money they were getting wasn't even, like, you know - it was, like, decreasing in value all the time.

But that's what fraud - fraud, I'm doing air quotes. That's what fraud actually tended to look like, even for people who were technically breaking the rules. Like, nobody was getting rich at all.

MERAJI: So basically, you just took a side job, like mowing somebody's lawn or fixing somebody's fence, and then that could be welfare fraud?

DEMBY: Or even, like, you have a cousin who moves in with you when that person has a job, right?

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: And you're not reporting their income. Like, all these things are things that would technically be in violation of welfare. You know what I mean? Like, there was an income in the home that you hadn't reported. It's just like, that was fraud, you know? But the face of fraud was Linda Taylor, you know.

MERAJI: Yeah. With her furs...

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: ...And her gloves and her Cadillac.

DEMBY: Exactly (laughter). The other thing is, after President Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996 - which was also, by the way, endorsed by people like Joe Biden - the numbers of people who were receiving welfare benefits did drop by a lot. But that doesn't mean there are fewer poor people in America. So there were 14 million people on welfare in 1994. But by the year 2000, there were only 6 million people on welfare.

MERAJI: Wow. That is a huge drop.

DEMBY: It's a huge drop. Less than a quarter of the people in the United States who count as poor are receiving welfare benefits. So there are a lot of people out there who are poor. They just aren't getting that money now. The Washington Post said that, while poverty was actually in decline in the years leading up to welfare reform, after the recession of just a few years ago, there were more people who were poor in 2016, which is 20 years after welfare reform.

And also, importantly, the rate of extreme poverty in America - people living on less than $2 a day, which is unfathomable - that number has doubled in the United States since that bill became law because one of the things that welfare did was it acted as a kind of income floor. Like, you may have been poor, but there was a few hundred dollars that you got every month from the government. But after welfare reform, people had to get off the programs after a certain period of time because they had to find work.

MERAJI: But that assumes that you live in a place where there are jobs or you're physically capable of working.

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: So what if you're poor, and you have no job or no job prospects?

DEMBY: I mean, you just don't have those things. Like, that financial help from the government, that floor, is just gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's our show. Follow us on Twitter, we're @NPRCodeSwitch. You should e-mail us at codeswitch@npr.org. And we have a newsletter. Do y'all know we have a newsletter? We have a newsletter. You can sign up for that at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez.

MERAJI: And it was edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam (ph) - Kumari Devarajan, Adrian Florido, Kat Chow, Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson and Sami Yenigun. Our interns are Jess Kung and Michael Paulino. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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