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The game’s title gives it away: Public Assistance: Why Bother Working for a Living?
Why indeed? The rules are simple. You start with $500, the monthly allowance for each player, or “Able-Bodied Welfare Recipient.” The object is to have the most moola after 12 trips around the board (a year, get it?).
Roll the die, and advance to a square that reads “Have Out-of-Wedlock Child.” Another roll: “Hang Out in Front of Liquor Store.” So far, so good, but you haven’t picked up much cash. Here are a few squares to shoot for: “Shoplift on Way to Welfare Office—COLLECT $200.” “Sign Up in 3 States—COLLECT 3X ALL BENEFITS.” “Smuggle Iranian Hash—COLLECT $4000.”
Life isn’t always sweet, even on this so-called “Able-Bodied Welfare Recipient’s Promenade.” You have to watch out for zing ers like “Lincoln Needs New Paint Job—PAY $200.”
Worse, an unlucky roll can force you to get a job; then you’re stuck in the “Working Person’s Rut,” fraught with costly dilemmas such as: “Your daughter brings home new ethnic boyfriend. Pay hospital bill as a result of the [ensuing fight]. Pay $200.”
Even the play money is stamped with all sorts of left-baiting humor. The $10 bills are emblazoned with a portrait of Karl Marx and the motto “Welfare Recipients of the World: Collect!” The $1,000 bills feature the gullible American taxpayer and the Latin phrase “Stercorem Pro Cerebro Habes [You Have Shit for Brains].”
The brainchild of Robert Bowie Johnson, Public Assistance mercilessly—some have charged maliciously—ridicules the American welfare system. Johnson says his game merely reflects a welfare bureaucracy so disastrous and corrupt that even Democrats are demanding extensive reform. Morever, according to its inventor, Public Assistance provides the perfect entertainment for right-wing families on cold winter nights.
“This is welfare as we know it, and by the grace of God, 10 or 15 years down the road, this will be welfare as we knew it,” says Johnson in his Baltimore-raised accent. “[The game] will be a period piece….One of my grandkids will come up to me and say, “Granddad, I’m having fun playing this game, but is it really true that you used to get more money the more illegitimate children you have, and the more you cheated the more money you got, and working wasn’t rewarded as much as being a loafer? Is that really true?’ ”
In his modest home in Arnold, Md., a small bayside community near Annapolis, the 51-year-old entrepreneur runs Hammerhead Enterprises, which markets his board game and other products. A Vietnam War veteran, Johnson is also the editor of a local newsletter, Broadneck Baloney, and the author of several vanity press books, including a manual titled Getting Back Through the Telephone Jack: The Civilized and Droll Way to Handle Annoying Callers and a volume of humor, Short Stories & Baloney.
The self-described “conservative libertarian” says his board games are born out of a profound frustration with American society. Current events leave him feeling angry and powerless; making fun of troubling issues is his way of fighting back: “I mean, it’s welfare and crime, welfare and crime—who wants to talk about welfare and crime in a serious aspect? It’s just depressing. But we can get some laughs out of it and turn the thing around.”
Bashing welfare, of course, has been a pop-culture staple as long as federal assistance programs have been in existence. Connie Francis got her digs in early on, crooning a sarcastic ditty called “The Welfare Check” in the early ’60s. For the most part, though, anti-welfare rants have come from country singers spouting macho declarations of independence (“I ain’t never been on welfare—that’s one place I won’t be,” vowed Merle Haggard in “Workin’ Man Blues”) or satirizing the abuses of the system (such as Guy Drake’s 1970 hit “Welfare Cadilac,” the tale of a hick who picks up his family’s food stamps in his brand-new caddy). Rockers have also occasionally joined the fray. In 1979, Neil Young cynically wailed, “Welfare mothers make better lovers” on his Rust Never Sleeps album.
Johnson’s original version of Public Assistance first appeared in 1980 as a retail product in stores ranging from Toys “R” Us to Saks Fifth Avenue. The game was popular, even outselling Monopoly in some outlets, according to Johnson.
But alarmed welfare rights groups soon organized a boycott that ousted the game from store shelves. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Public Welfare Association, among others, complained that the game was a biased and offensive depiction of welfare recipients.
“They said, “It’s racist, it’s sexist….Oh look, what a terrible game,’ ” recalls Johnson. “But this game isn’t making fun of poor people—it isn’t about poor people. It mocks government liberalism.”
Johnson and co-inventor Ronald Pramschufer subsequently sued to get the game back on the market, but lost their lawsuit. Victims of the so-called “welfare empire conspiracy,” they licked their wounds for a decade, biding their time.
Spurred by the conservative talk radio revolution, Johnson recently realized he didn’t need the retail market. He now peddles a new version of Public Assistance directly through the conservative broadcasting and publishing network; sales, he says, have topped 4,000 games since fall 1994. His customers? Fed-up taxpayers like himself, who agree with his mantra: “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that people have the right to fare well at my involuntary expense.”
Except for a brighter, more colorful design (featuring easier-to-read print for the elderly), Public Assistance is virtually a direct copy of its controversial predecessor. “It’s essentially the same [game] it was in 1980,” he admits. “Welfare’s essentially the same system it was then, except that it’s gotten bigger and bolder and it’s got more programs than ever.” Likewise, Johnson uses the same soundbite he used to defend his game in the early ’80s: “We didn’t invent the welfare game, government liberals did. We just put it in a box.”
Besides guesting on talk radio shows, Johnson advertises in fringe periodicals such as The Spotlight. An ad in a recent issue of Patrick Buchanan’s newsletter, The American Cause, flogs the game for $29.80, while boasting a blurb from Giftware News: “the most original game of the decade, if not the century.” The ad’s headline, “2 Great Liberal-Bashing Fun Games in 1 Box,” sums up the game’s appeal for bargain-hunting right-wingers.
That’s right, the new version actually includes two games. After the toddlers have gone to bed, you can flip the board over and play Capital Punishment, which satirizes the criminal justice system.
Johnson excitedly explains his newest game, which—like the loose wiring in Charles Bronson fans—seems to tap primal urges. “You could win the game by getting all four criminals in life imprisonment, but in the meantime you’ve got liberals [portrayed as bearded, bespectacled lawyers] knocking your criminals back on the street, and you have to start over. The only place the criminal is really “safe’ from a liberal is the [electric] chair.”
In the center of the board lurk “Death Row” and “The Chair,” flanked by a pair of courtroom zones, “Parole Hearing” and “Appeal,” where liberal lawyers spring killers. There is also the “Ivory Tower,” where liberals reside, and a heaven where innocent victims go after being murdered by criminals.
The surest way to win is to simply execute all of your criminals as fast as possible, making Capital Punishment much less complicated—but more visceral—than the labyrinthine maze of Public Assistance. “It’s really more of a strategy game,” says Johnson. “In fact, I was thinking of making up a kids’ game, but with cowboys and Indians instead of liberals and criminals.”
Probably due to the game’s non-retail status, the reappearance of Public Assistance has yet to spur protests from the welfare rights groups that successfully banned it more than a decade ago. According to Johnson, one of the few criticisms has come from a radio talk show host based in Florida: “His gig is pretending to be the super liberal. That’s his shtick, so to speak—he’s trying to get nationally syndicated as “the liberal guy.’ So he throws all this liberal crap out at me, saying, “What about the helpless members of society?’ I said, “Helpless? What about my late mother, who was in her 70s when she was mugged twice by welfare people? Now, mugging people is taking a lot of power over them, I would think, so don’t tell me they’re powerless.’ ”
As for welfare reform, Johnson has put a new card in the updated version that addresses this pipe dream, which, he says, would simply mean more wasteful welfare programs and money from his pocket: “At long last, the promised 20 billion dollar Welfare Reform package becomes law. Pay $500 additional taxes.” For him, welfare—or any program that attempts to redistribute wealth, for that matter—is nothing but the handiwork of fools.
“It wasn’t until the war on poverty that the idea [started] that there’d be no more poverty—that there’d be no more poor people,” he says. “That’s impossible. The only person that could make that possible is the Lord himself.”