- “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”The Welfare State, Tax Politics, and the Search for a New Majority, 1968–1980
Ron Pramschuffer and Robert Johnson, two enterprising Maryland businessmen of the “Archie Bunker persuasion,” had an idea.1 They would turn the rage, frustration, and alienation of the white working and lower middle class into a board game. Their brainchild, Public Assistance: Why Work for a Living When You Can Play This Great Welfare Game, hit stores just in time for the 1980 holiday shopping season.2 Modeled after Monopoly, the game retailed for about $16 and included a game board, four playing pieces, four identical pieces representing each player’s live-in or spouse, a set of cardboard pieces representing illegitimate children, and a supply of play money. The rules were straightforward. Players rolled a set of dice and moved accordingly along one of two tracks: the “Able Bodied Welfare Recipient’s Promenade,” or the “Working Person’s Rut.” Whoever ended the game—usually twelve trips around the board—with the most money won.
Like many members of what President Richard M. Nixon once called the “Silent Majority,” Johnson and Pramschuffer were fed up with a federal government that seemed to do little more than exploit “poor hardworking taxpayers like themselves.”3 The Welfare Game reflected and reproduced this widespread sense of victimization at the hands of federal bureaucrats, “welfare blocs and social engineers.”4 Life on the “Working Person’s Rut” was expensive and dangerous. Players unlucky enough to land there found themselves “burdened by oppressive taxes, strangled by government regulations, and victimized by reverse discrimination.”5 By contrast, those on the “Able-Bodied [End Page 709] Welfare Recipient’s Promenade” experienced what journalist Nicholas Lemann described as a “pleasantly racy round of looting, gambling, drinking, having illegitimate children, and of course, collecting government benefits.”6 The game provided ample opportunities for welfare recipients to cheat the government out of money. Players on the “Promenade” might expect to gain $500 by selling “tranquilizers . . . to distraught housewives,” to collect another $700 in “emergency grants” from “five different welfare offices on [their] way to Atlantic City”; or to earn $200 from an “ethnic” politician interested in getting out the welfare vote. Of course, the easiest way for “Able Bodied Welfare Recipients” to collect additional money was simply to have more children.
Drawing on hoary racial and gendered stereotypes, the game visually insisted on a zero-sum competition between tax recipients and taxpayers that, by the end of the 1970s, had become central to mainstream discourse about welfare in particular, and liberalism in general.7 Not only did the game provide separate paths for Able-Bodied Welfare Recipients and Working Persons, but its rules made it clear that workers’ burdens were caused by the behavior of both welfare recipients and their government enablers. Any time a player on the Welfare Promenade landed on a “Have an Illegitimate Child” square, for example, each player in the Working Person’s Rut had to pay that player $50. Most of the setbacks dealt to Working Persons came at the hands of the federal government or the social-work establishment. And even if a player in the Working Person’s Rut somehow managed to beat the odds and finish the game with the most money, that player would still owe taxes (anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent) to the “custodian of the taxpayers’ hard earned dollars.”
By 1980, the world of the Welfare Game would have looked familiar to many Americans. “We didn’t invent this game,” Johnson later insisted, “Government liberals did. We just put it in a box.”8 Its basic conceit—that welfare spending alone could be blamed for rising taxes—had become central to most critiques of the liberal state.9 So too had the claim that the legitimate rights and interests of taxpayers competed with and were jeopardized by the suspect rights claims and illegitimate demands of the so-called loafing classes on the welfare rolls.10 The era’s uncertain economy, its confounding combination of spiraling inflation, mounting unemployment, and stagnant wages only sharpened Americans’ sense that they were the victims, rather than...