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The "Public Assistance" Board Game: A Less Couth Form of Monopoly

I recently stumbled upon the "Public Assitance" board game in a thrift store. It is a telling game of racial and class-based stereotypes that should really be archived in a museum somewhere. I have taken the time to document this bit of American race and class history.
The "Public Assistance" Board Game: A Less Couth Form of Monopoly
By Kirsten Anderberg (

I found a board game called "Public Assistance: Why Bother Working for a Living?," selling for 25 cents, at a local thrift store recently. It was thrown in amongst all the other abandoned board games, like Clue and Monopoly, on the shelf. Not only was the game's name immediately intriguing, but the art on the game box cover drew me in as well. The cover of the game shows a street with a market with a "food stamps accepted" sign in its window, a loan shop with a sign, "fire arms sold and registered here," an insurance agency, and a bar and grill with signs in the window that say, "welfare checks cashed here," and "play lottery here." The street has mothers with children on steps in front of their homes, kids digging in trash cans, pitching pennies and sitting around bored. It shows a man stealing a chicken from the store, with the shop keeper running after him. It shows what looks like a pimp with jewels and a fancy car, and a woman looking markedly different than the mothers, in heels and a revealing red dress. A man is drinking alcohol upstairs in one room, 2 burglars are on the roof of the building, and two men are bleeding in the corner.

I bought the game, of course, and took it home to play with my friends. It has been a big hit at parties. The "Public Assistance" game, with a trademark of 1980, was brought to us by Hammerhead Enterprises out of Severna Park, Maryland. It really should be archived in a museum somewhere. The board for the game includes tracks such as the "Able-Bodied Welfare Recipient Promenade," the "Government Cake Walk," the "Jail Jaunt," and the "Working Person's Rut." With bad luck, you are bumped from the welfare promenade to the working person's rut. But with some luck, you will have a "Get Out of a Job Free" card, to thwart such aggressions. And the more "illegitimate" children you amass, the more money you get every time you pass this game's equivalent of Monopoly's "Go."

The "welfare promenade" has four side streets; they are labeled "prostitution," "gambling," "drugs," and "armed robbery." You can only enter one of those four side streets via the four spaces marked "Saturday Night" on the welfare promenade. While on the welfare promenade track, you will stumble on spaces that say things like: "spend day in pool hall," "read girlie magazines all day," "sneak into x-rated movie," "shoplift on way to welfare office," "play pinball machines all day," "act belligerently at job interview," "rent TV to watch soap operas," "attend welfare "rights" rally," "steal hub caps," "sleep all day," "hang out in front of liquor store," and "spend leisurely afternoon loitering in gay bar." There are also "have illegitimate child" spaces all along the welfare promenade, as well as "get a job," "government job," and the Saturday night spaces. The Saturday Night jaunts are interesting. In "Armed Robbery," for instance, we see spaces that say: "Rob collection plate after High Mass," "hold up nearest person on working circle," "steal senior citizen's social security check," "buy "Saturday Night Special"," and "rob taxicab." The "prostitution" track has spaces marked: "funky sex customer - collect $200," "special for police chief," "girls got busted," "steady customers' day," "special for mayor," "Lincoln needs new paint job," "go to jail," and "put teenage runaways to work." On the "drugs" track, we find spaces saying: "snatch purse," "sell "downers" to housewives," "collect $400 from steady customers," "get busted and go to jail," "rip off another dealer," "sell your home grown," "you overdose and are robbed," and "make new contact at elementary school." And lastly, the "gambling" track, has spaces marked: "deal with marked cards," "tout at race track," "it's a raid!," "jockey gives you bad tip," "underground casino prospers," "go to jail," and "bet on fixed Little League."

The "working person's rut" has two side avenues that lead to union jobs and self-employment. The worker's rut has spaces saying things that make you pay, basically, such as: "utilities due," "septic tank needs pumping," "monthly parking fee," "car payment due," "gas fill-up," "you lose office football pool," "rent due," "church raffle," "Christmas gifts for the kids," "grocery bills," "forget troubles - drink beer and watch ball game on TV," "car overheats in rush hour traffic," "go out to dinner," "flat tire, no spare," "property tax due," and "school tax." But my favorite space on the worker rut is "You are robbed, pay $200 to the closest player on Welfare Promenade." There are "go on welfare" spaces on the worker's rut, as well as pay days. There is also a portal to go into a Union Job, with spaces saying things like: "strike for two months to get $25 raise," "plant shut down," "you show too much initiative," "dip into retirement fund," "pay union dues," "set new production record, work yourself out of a job," and "you take 12 hours to do 6 hour job." The "Go In Business For Yourself" track has burdensome spaces such as: "unemployment taxes," "your shop is unionized," "secretary alleges sex discrimination," "employee sabotages company equipment," "customer rejects finished job," and "caught with improper racial balance in shop."

In the middle of the board are the "Government Cake Walk," and the "Jail Jaunt." The jail jaunt has adventurous spaces such as: "lose one turn in solitary confinement," "social worker "rehabilitates" you, go back on welfare," "you are sexually assaulted," "you are paroled," "prison overcrowding, go back on welfare," "psychiatric disability from social security," "you escape, change name and go back on welfare," "you make drug connection and sell to inmates," and "ethnic lawyer gets you off on technicality." The government cake walk features spaces such as: "work on personal job on government time," "tax payers foot bill for bureaucratic convention," "annual leave," "you are conscience-stricken, quit government job," "fake sick leave," "you must work on Saturday for time and a half," "your kickback scheme pays off," "work is substandard, get promotion," "accept bribe for awarding government contract," and ""blow whistle" on government waste, get demoted."

Cards rest in piles on the middle of the board. There are the burden cards, where you pay. And there are the benefit cards, which are full of lavish prizes and gifts bestowed upon the poor by the state. You get burden cards by landing on "burden" spaces on the working person's rut. You get benefit cards by landing on "benefit" spaces on the welfare promenade. Here are some of the Burden cards:

  • "Ethnic solicitor slips on your sidewalk. Pay legal fees."
  • "Your son is beat up by ethnic gang while being bussed across town to school. Pay hospital bill."
  • "Your brother is murdered by rehabilitated murderer. Lose one turn for mourning."
  • "Surprise! 20,000 boat people are blown off course in hurricane landing in Russia by mistake, reducing anticipated welfare expenditures by 1/10 of 1 percent. Each person in working person rut receives $100."
  • "You are up for high-paying promotion but Government "Affirmative Action" rules require that a "disadvantaged" minority, homosexual, Buddhist female be promoted over you. Lose $500."
  • "Federal Government offers to reimburse your employer for salaries if he will hire ethnic immigrants. Business is business. You're fired."
  • "Your sister is raped by a paroled rapist."
  • "Your boyfriend brings home new ethnic boyfriend. Pay hospital bill as a result of the incident. $150"

Now that last one is even *more* bizarre than the rest of them, which are all really bizarre! So his daughter dating an "ethnic boyfriend" cost them money in hospital bills, with no further explanation? How does that one work?!

The Benefit cards follow the same pattern:

  • "Snowstorm immobilizes police. You loot $2000 worth of jewelry and color TV's and sell on black market."
  • "Your spouse or live-in lands government job and takes first turn on government cake walk."
  • "Set up fake robbery and report welfare check and food stamps stolen. Collect $500 emergency grant."
  • "You hire ethnic lawyer through free "Judicare" program and sue your landlord for alleged housing violations."
  • "Your ethnic congressman gets your live-in or spouse a job with the Social Security Administration who takes his first turn on the government cake walk."
  • "National Endowment for the Arts accepts your proposal for experimental film-making. Your theme: "The Limits of Pornography." Receive $900 grant."
  • "Local minority leader organizes rent strike."
  • "You hire ethnic lawyer through free "Judicare" program to represent you at welfare office. He gets you additional benefits."
  • "Ethnic politician hires you "under the table" to get out welfare vote."
  • "Surprise! As usual, you act indifferent and lazy at job interview, but these are just the traits this employer is looking for. You're hired as a mattress-comfort tester. Advance to nearest "get a job" block."
  • "You lose perspective one day and apply for a job. You are denied it. You allege discrimination on the basis of race. Lawyer you hire through free "Judicare" program gets you $1000 cash settlement."
  • "Dishonest doctor aggress to accept your "Medicaid" card for treatment of fake illness and pays you kickback."
  • "Ethnic landlord charges you rent by the week instead of month."
  • "Your 15 year old daughter is pregnant out of wedlock. Collect additional $200 benefits when you reach or pass the 1st of the month."
  • "Your great aunt Sophie dies. You don't report her death and bury her in the basement. Collect her $500 welfare check each time you reach the 1st of the month."
  • "Finance company repossesses your Cadillac."
  • "Pick pocket of social worker."
  • "While in welfare office parking lot, you siphon gas from social worker's Pinto into your Lincoln."
  • "Illegitimate child determined to have learning disability. Receive immediate $200 benefit from Social Security Administration."
  • "You pour grape Kool Aid on refrigerator motor and order new refrigerator from welfare office."
  • "Your live-in or spouse kicks in picture tube of old TV during argument. Receive new color TV from welfare office."
  • "Ethnic carnival comes to town. Lose $200 on "Wheel of Fortune.""

Again, the last one tops the others, which are totally outrageous in their own rite. What in the hell *is* an "ethnic carnival?"

The last amazing part of this game is its instructions. The amount of money you collect each month in this game is determined by how many "illegitimate" children you collect by landing on "have illegitimate child" spaces on the board. In the instructions, it elaborates: "Is there a limit to the number of illegitimate children an able-bodied welfare recipient may have? No. It is possible, though improbable, to land on 16 "have illegitimate child" blocks in two trips around the Able-Bodied Welfare Recipient Promenade. 16 illegitimate children may be uncommon, but not unheard of. A welfare recipient in Baltimore, for example, is on record as having 22 illegitimate children, all by the age of 32! And in turn, some of her illegitimate children now have illegitimate children of their own." Then there are the instructions about who can bet on horses or play the daily lottery, and when. A welfare recipient may play the horses or lottery any time. But a worker in the worker's rut, "does not have time to go to the race track and works too hard for his money to squander it on the lottery." But the icing on the cake is the final word on the instruction sheet. It instructs players on how to "add more realism" to the game. It says, "Two players may decide to take this great game to the waiting room of their local welfare office and invite two real life able-bodied welfare recipients to join them in the game while they are waiting for their food stamps and welfare checks."

I really cannot add much in the way of commentary to this article. It seems that this game speaks for itself. Loud and clear. And these attitudes are not in our past, they are as present today as they were in 1980 when this game was released. You can tell who guy who made this game is afraid of, you can tell what he is perceiving as the prejudices and injustices the working class are experiencing. And he is very clear about his racial and class-based stereotypes and fears. To me, this is a perfect little game, reflecting a certain slice of Americana that is very real in many white, middle class Americans' minds. These racial and class-based stereotypes and prejudices are well displayed in this game's pieces, instructions and board itself. If you want to write the company to complain, their address as of 1980, was Hammerhead Enterprises, Inc., POBox 1057, Severna Park, Maryland, 21146. God knows there must be some market for a 2004 George Bush Commemorative Edition of this in the works, you would think!


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Re: The "Public Assistance" Board Game: A Less Couth Form of Monopoly

I apologize, but my husband & I played the game and loved it. I guess that is because we 'looked' beyond the title and the so called "...prejudices and injustices the working class are experiencing..." and looked at it as a GAME. Plain and simple. AND as one who had the unfortunate experience of ending up on Public Assistance/Welfare for almost 7 years due to my disability, (I have Multiple Sclerosis and due to a flare up leaving me legally blind was unable to work. I did finally receive my vision back very slowly over a period of 7 years, and have had a very difficult time trying to obtain a FT steady position since...), I for one, can understand the 'realistic' touch of the game, having lived with people who did, (and still do) take advantage of the government.

I don't understand why PUBLIC ASSISTANCE, Why bother Working for a Living? is considered such a threat to people. We have video games where the player tries to 'kill, steal, blow-up' as much as they can... and that is acceptable, but a board game is a threat to the public... so much so it was banned!
Write to complain about the game? How about writing to applaud that someone actually had a sense of humor and the INTELLIGENCE to put together a game filled with 'food for thought', when you hear of a neighbor applying for Welfare because they have Asthma, but the can be out dancing all night?


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