April 24, 2006

Reagan's welfare queen

Former President Reagan had the tendency to invoke anecdotes, his own guesses, and even just make up stuff as 'evidence' for his preferred political positions. For example, he is famous for saying things like "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do" (to support his position that more stringent automobile emission controls were not necessary) or (to presumably oppose any gun control legislation) that "In England, if a criminal carried a gun, even though he didn't use it, he was not tried for burglary or theft or whatever he was doing. He was tried for first degree murder and hung if he was found guilty." When his spokesperson was told that this statement about English gun law was just false, he said: "Well, it's a good story, though. It made the point, didn't it?"

As a result of this practice, Reagan's assertions were sometimes treated as less than credible. One such claim that he used to support his attempts to discredit the welfare system was his story of the 'welfare queen,' about a woman who lived in a mansion and drove a Cadillac and wore mink coats, all on income derived from defrauding the welfare system by using false names and imaginary children.

This welfare queen story provoked considerable skepticism since he never actually provided any specifics about who she was and the details kept changing. Even after he died in 2004, an obituary by David Shribman in the Boston Globe on June 6, 2004 said: "[Reagan] was a colorful character, both a spinner of anecdotes (many of which were apocryphal) and a spawner of anecdotes. He once said that scientific studies suggested that a substantial amount of air pollution was produced by trees, and he loved to tell stories about a "welfare queen," never identified, who unlawfully used food stamps to buy alcohol."

But in this latter case, Reagan was right, at least partially. A colleague of mine, alerted by one of his students, pointed me to the story of Dorothy Woods, a woman who seemed to fit Reagan's description. A search on the Lexis-Nexis database elicits a New York Times article on December 21, 1980 that says:

She is reported to own Rolls-Royce, Mercedes Benz and Cadillac automobiles, and the Superior Court documents say she allegedly filed fraudulent public assistance claims for 38 nonexistent children
. . .
Investigators also said that records had been found in her home that indicated that the couple owned 100 to 120 rental units, property in Chicago, and other real estate including two homes on Prospect Boulevard in Pasadena, each estimated to be worth $250,000 to $300,000.

The couple lived a lavish lifestyle and it seems that she and her husband were otherwise wealthy people. It is not clear why they also resorted to welfare fraud. Clearly, the amount she stole from welfare ($377,000 over seven years) would not have been enough to purchase all these things and sustain this kind of lifestyle, so Reagan's implication that it was welfare fraud that enabled otherwise poor people to live like this was not correct. This welfare scam seemed like extra pocket money for rich people who got even greedier and defrauded the government. In that sense, she is not much different from other rich people who defraud the government in other ways.

Woods was sentenced in 1983 to an eight-year prison sentence. Queen Latifah is reportedly starring in a film based on her life to be released soon.

The evolution of such stories is interesting because it shows how dangerous and slippery and unreliable our own memories are and how we must be vigilant and especially on our guard against uncritically accepting as 'facts' those things that fit our preconceptions.

Let's speculate and see if we can recreate the genesis of this particular story. Given that Ms. Woods lived in Pasadena (close to Hollywood where Reagan lived and worked), this story must have been reported locally and Reagan must have seen or heard or read about it. Since it involved welfare fraud, and Reagan was opposed to the welfare program, this story would have resonated with him and he would have remembered it. All of us are prone to remembering those things that support our preconceptions. At the time, the story would not have made national headlines because its main point "Rich people defraud the government!" is hardly news.

But over time, the discrepant details of the story, that showed that this was a fraud perpetrated by a rich person, must have disappeared from his mind, and what remained was the story that he wanted to believe, that the welfare system was too lax and too generous and that it enabled shiftless, lazy, poor people to live luxuriously at taxpayer's expense. Again, this is a natural tendency to which we are all prone. I have written before about the ability of our memories to play such tricks on us.

Many people (including me) were skeptical of this story and dismissed it, since we knew that Reagan was cavalier with facts in general. We knew that he was opposed to the welfare system and so we did not take his welfare queen story seriously, similar to the way we dismissed his statements about polluting trees.

How can we prevent this kind of sloppiness? This is where the academic practice of providing supporting evidence and documentation for assertions is important. If you can cite sources for your assertions with names, dates, places, and numbers, those assertions become more credible. If you do that, then people who disagree with you are obliged to investigate the information you provide to see if it really means what you say it does. If, however, you simply say things like "I heard that. . ." and "People say. . ." then the listener really has no idea if you should be taken seriously or not, and they will go by your reputation for reliability or lack of it.

In general, the burden of proof rests with the person who makes the assertion to provide at least some positive evidence in support of it, as otherwise the people who challenge it are left with the impossible task of proving a negative.

I will discuss this question of the burden of proof more thoroughly in a future posting, since it is an important factor in weighing the merits of competing claims.

POST SCRIPT: Politicians live in a different world

I have written before at how surprised I am at the willingness of politicians to be bribed by lobbyists by petty things like golf games and meals and tickets to sporting events. I asked why they would do this since surely they could afford these things on their own salaries.

I was reminded of just how out of touch I am with the lifestyles of the rich and famous by the recent story of Katherine Harris, a congresswoman from Florida and now also the Republican candidate for US Senator. Political junkies may remember her as that state's Secretary of State in 2000 and at the heart of the election shenanigans during that infamous election. It has been alleged that she was instrumental in helping George Bush win that state.

Harris' current senate campaign has been hit by one setback after another, described as a 'train wreck,' with staffers abandoning it in droves. The latest scandal is a dinner that she had with a lobbyist Mitchell Wade, who was one of those who pleaded guilty to bribing Republican congressman Duke Cunningham of San Diego, who had to resign his seat and go to jail.

Apparently the dinner for Wade and Harris (paid by Wade) cost $2,800 as the Orlando Sentinel reports, and adds "House rules forbid members from accepting gifts worth $50 or more[.]"

My first reaction to this story was to question how a meal for two people could possibly cost so much. What could you possibly eat that was so expensive?

My problem in understanding was because when I think of a 'meal' or 'dinner', I think of food. I hardly ever drink alcohol and it is apparently this that can be the big ticket item. Certain wines can be really expensive and this is what apparently drove up the price.

Since I could not, for the life of me, be able to tell the difference between a bottle of wine that costs $10 and one that costs $1,000 bottle, plying me with such things would be a waste. But I wonder how many of our congresspersons can really tell the difference either? Are they simply flattered by the mere fact that someone is paying so much to please them? But if their palates could not tell them that the wine was really expensive, wouldn't that require the briber to point out to the bribee the price of the wine in order to make the attempted bribe work? "Here, have another glass of this $2,000 wine." Wouldn't that be somewhat tacky?


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Regarding your postscript - having been out with clients, that is precisely what they say. Whether ordering it for themselves or trying to order it for you, when they order some expensive single malt whisky or an expensive bottle of wine, they will invariably work the price of the drink into conversation. Meanwhile, experiment after experiment shows that many of them could not tell the quality of what they are drinking from one that sells at a fraction of the cost.

Posted by Daniel on April 24, 2006 08:16 AM

Just to add a little to what Daniel says -- I don't have any experience with this myself, but I do wonder why you think tackiness would be a particular disincentive to this form of bribery... bribery itself is inherently tacky, whether it's a "campaign donation" or a fancy dinner, but if you want it to work you have to make it clear what's going on. I think the real challenge is making it clear without making the person feel like a whore, which is admittedly tough but I don't think it's any tougher with wine than with a check. Actually, I predict that it might even be easier with wine. I don't think I have the power or the money to test it experimentally, however ;).

Posted by Erin on April 24, 2006 11:35 AM

I think the whole system of campaign contributions and gifts and meals are designed to paint a respectable coating on bribery. But apart from the legal issue, I think that people like things to have a genteel veneer. If you told a congressperson "I am going to take you out for a fancy dinner and in return I want you to vote this way," that person might be offended. But if you do it discreetly, with unwritten codes and nudges and winks, then they can maintain their self-image of doing whatver is asked of them for the "right" reasons. I think that maintianing pretences plays a big role in this kind of transaction.

Don't we do that in everyday life, too, saying things in an oblique way, while everyone "understands" what the real message being conveyed is?

All this is just speculation on my part, though...

Posted by Mano Singham on April 24, 2006 11:59 AM

To heck with wine, soon the bribes will involve a year's worth of fill-ups at the local gas station.

Posted by Barry on April 24, 2006 05:10 PM

Is it clear that Woods was wealthy before she began the welfare fraud? I think it's easier to imagine someone not so well off starting with welfare fraud, then becoming wealthy, and continuing the fraud just because it's easy, or maybe to avoid attracting any attention that might come with getting off welfare.

Posted by Paul Jarc on April 24, 2006 07:35 PM

Ugh, the whole concept of the welfare queen drives me crazy. Whenever I get into debates with my conservative friends, they bring the idea up and use it to justify their stance that access to these programs should be severely limited or eliminated. I have always felt that, even if the story were completely true, there are people who really need help in ways that students at an expensive private college could never understand. Helping people cheat seems worth it if you're helping people who really need it simultaneously.

Posted by Katie on April 24, 2006 11:44 PM

I agree with Katie that the existence of a few welfare frauds is not an argument for taking poor people off welfare, anymore than the fact that some corporations rip off the taxpayer is an argument for banning corporations altogether.

Paul, Woods was stealing about $50,000 per year. You cannot become wealthy on that amount. At best, it can lift you from poverty to middle class. It is never going to get you 100 rental properties in Chicago and all the other stuff she owned. So she had to have had a lot of money from elsewhere.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 25, 2006 07:57 AM

I grew up on welfare... and I remember how hard it was for us to make ends meet on it. I'm constantly being told about these so-called welfare queens from conservatives and I'd sure like to meet these fine women! Meanwhile, our government gives out corporate welfare like candy. We're even giving money to the gas companies!

A friend of mine commented that the individual tax payer's share of welfare was something like a dime... I should probably look that up and cite a source, huh?

Just yesterday a liberal friend's blog said "Of course I mean more money to people who deserve it, not welfare queens"... I think this myth is more pervasive than you think. People BELIEVE in it.

Where can I get the facts to straighten people out?

Posted by Marie on April 25, 2006 01:54 PM

Marie and Fellow Posters: Marie asked where she could obtain facts to straighten people out re
the welfare debate. I recommend Mother Warriors
Voice, a women's newspaper from Milwaukee WI, which
has been in publication for nearly twenty years,
a quarterly journal depicting news about poor mothers and women both in the U.S. and the globe.
Their group is Welfare Warriors, 2711 W. Michigan Ave., Milwaukee WI 53208. Website:

Posted by on June 11, 2006 11:13 AM

Hey, working on the Wikipedia entry for "welfare queen." realised there wasn't an entry and decided to start one. do consider contributing, especially if you're doing any research on dorothy woods.

Posted by chalyres on November 6, 2006 12:53 AM

I'm embarassed to say I grew up on welfare.

Posted by golf tips on August 1, 2010 07:12 PM

I have the same trouble with Campaign... I couldn't tell you, taste wise, whether I was drinking a cheap bottle or one that costs many hundreds times more.

As for welfare, move to Britain we love paying high taxes so that asylum seekers can live here and be put up in 5 star hotels.


Posted by golf driving tips on August 9, 2010 06:33 AM

We were on welfare when I was young, but my father was able to make it through college and became an RN, and he's been very successful with that choice. The system worked great as far as that goes.

Posted by post pregnancy tummy on August 19, 2010 12:00 PM

I guess wine is a bit like art and price usually reflects high demand & low production... $2000 bottle should be yummy though!!

Posted by Mary on September 21, 2010 08:30 AM

I think the rule is silly. A meal is a meal. I doubt anyone can tell the difference between a $100 and $1000 bottle of wine. It's only important to people who are familiar with the history of the wine - it's no longer about taste.

Posted by wine by the month on December 19, 2010 04:09 AM

Duke Cunningham was a complete and utter disaster for San Diego. The guy was the epitome of local politics and clear military credentials (a pre-requisite for being elected here) so seeing him take a bribe of that size was tough for many people.

I can't say it has changed things much.

As for the wine question-the guy using keywords for his name is right, history and romance play a part in price. Don't they for everything? Most people, if given the chance and a tasting course of two (which literally every politican has done) can tell the difference in wine price ranges.

Posted by Mark on January 18, 2011 07:29 AM

You've gotta love Reagan, even back then he was already out of his mind. Funny thing is he was a better president than Bush, which one? Both.

Posted by Organise your life on April 22, 2011 05:53 PM