The Post incorrectly reported in Tuesday's editions that Bloomingdale's sells the board game Public Assistance. Bloomingdale's does not and does not intend to sell the game.
One day back in June, Bob Johnson and Ron pramschufer, two buddies from outside Annapolis, were crabbing on a pier in Chesapeake Bay, and had the crabs been biting that would have been all there was to it.
But the crabs weren't biting, so Johnson and Pramschufer got to complaining. First they complained about the crabs, but that soon gave way, somehow, to their favorite subject, the federal government and its exploitation of poor hardworking taxpayers like themselves.Pretty soon they decided what they ought to do was invent a game that would show the world how they felt.
So they did. It's called Public Assistance. It's about welfare. It's selling briskly, at $15.95 a set. And it has earned Johnson and Pramschufer a moderate degree of notoriety. People are calling them racists.
Public Assistance is a board game that enshrines, quite cleverly, a right-wing vision of the welfare system. Players circle the board in either the "Working Person's Rut," a living hell of bills and taxes, or on the "Able-Bodied Welfare Recipient's Promenade," which is a pleasantly racy round of looting, gambling, drinking, having illegitimate children, and of course collecting government handouts. For the working person, the only hope is to get on welfare or the get a government or union job, both higher-paying forms of welfare, but if you make the mistake of going into business for yourself, government regulations will drive you into the extremest depths of poverty. Working people are tormented by busing and affirmative action; their children live in fear of being beaten up by an "ethnic gang." People on welfare get an unending stream of "stolen goods, Cadillacs and Lincolns, and other appurtenances of the good life.
Then there are the cards. If you land on a spaced marked "Burden," you pick up a "Working Person's Burden" card and receive tidings like these:
"After purchasing home in middle-class neighborhood, you are notified that your children must be bused back to inner-city school. Pay $700 private school tuition." Or:
"Your daughter brings home new ethnic boyfriend. Pay hospital bill as a result of the incident.$150." Or:
"Your son is beat up by ethnic gang while being bused across town to school.
Pay hospital bill. $200."
If, on the other hand, you land on a space marked "Benefit," you pick up a "Welfare Benefit" card, and the news is different. For example:
"Ethnic politician hires you 'under the table' to get out the welfare vote. Collect $200." Or:
"While in welfare office parking lot, you syphon gas from social worker's Pinto into your Lincoln. Collect $20 cash equivalent." Or:
"You lose your perspective one day and apply for a job. You denied it. You allege discrimination on the basis of race. Lawyer you hire through free 'Judicare' program gets you cash settlement of $1,000."
When the game was first published, a black community activist in Annapolis said it "comes close to bordering on racism." That was picked up by the Associated Press and landed Johnson and Pramschuger in all the papers. Then Patricia Roberts Harris, the secretary of Health and Human Services, made a speech in which she calle the game "callous, sexist and racist." That got Johnson on the "Today" show. Now Public Assistance is available in 12 outlets in the District of Columbia. Bloomingdale's, and Macy's and Gimbel's in New York. Johnson and Pramschufer are working out deals with East and West Coast distributors.
But is it racist? You may want to decide for yourself on the basis of the above evidence, but Johnson and Pramschufer insist it isn't. "There is no race in our game," says Johnson. "They're trying to put it in there. You see what you want to in the game. My attitude is, why should I work for poor people? Why can't they work for themselves?Working for poor people's gonna make me poor. Why the hell should I work 60 hours a week so a poor person can fare well? To support able-bodied loafes? The whole idea of welfare is immoral.
Johnson is a lean, intense man of 37, a native Baltimorean, a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran, a former waterman, a homeowner and the father of two daughters. He ad his wife run a small printing and publishing business in the town of Cape St. Clair, Md., and together they net about $13,000 a year.
He and Pramschufer -- 29 years old and a former salesman who now runs his own small graphic-design business -- share with millions of Americans an obsession with welfare that is all our of proportion to its actual draw on taxpayers' pocketbooks. The federal government spends about $7 billion every year -- or a little more than 1 percent of its budget -- on Aid to Families. With Dependent Children, the program everybody calls welfare. Social Security, by comparision, costs $115 billion for pensions alone. Welfare goes to 10 million people, most of whom are white, and the vast majority of whom move on and off the rolls, rather than living lives of unremitting lazy-bumism.
But welfare has an unmatched ability to inflame. Johnny Cash once cut a hit song called "Welfare Cadillac" and was invited by President Nixon to sing it at the White House. Can you imagine him deciding instead to write "Inflated Defense Claim" or "Indexed Social Security Payment," to cite two little freebies that cost the taxpayer a whole lot more? What is it about welfare? Probably that, if you have the general feeling that for every hard-won step forward, you're falling back two; if you're always vaguely tired, if you're getting sick of Hamburger Helper and if taxes really hurt, you're likely to direct your bill first toward the government and then toward its only program that seems to make a mockery of everything you live for -- by paying people actually not to work. No matter how big it is, it's the perfect symbol.
These genuine feelings, however, ought not obscure the way welfare really is. In the game of Public Assistance, if you're an able-bodied welfare recipient and have no children, you get a basic monthly grant of $500 a month. In real life in Maryland, if you're an able-bodied welfare recipient and have no children, you get a basic monthly grant of $116. In this and a hundred other ways, life on welfare is not a lark.
The game of Public Assistance is a lark. It conjures up a world that is exuberantly unjust and therefore entertaining. And why not? It's no fun at all to believe that the government is spending your money to support the aged and to build a strong defense. But able-bodied loafers? Then life would really be unfair.