The Problem with the Lottery
M. Joseph Young

  I know a couple who has the right attitude about casinos.  Several times each year they each put $50 in their pockets and drive an hour to Atlantic City to have a good time eating, drinking, and losing their money.  They feel that a night on the town is probably going to cost them about a hundred dollars anyway, and so they're paying for the opportunity to play games and have a good time.  (I've never done that, because frankly I don't have a hundred dollars to pay for a night out.  Dinner at Burger King and a movie at the dollar theatre are more my price range.)

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  Most people don't have that attitude.  They don't walk into the casino planning to lose, but rather hoping to win.  They know that this is unrealistic, that very few people win, that the casino makes enough money from losers to pay the winners, to give away free food and drink and other services, to present free shows by professional entertainers, to expand their huge and showy buildings, and to pay their stockholders.  But most people still expect that they will come out ahead, exiting the casino with more money than they had when they entered.  And most people promote the myth, because they will talk for years about the time they made money one night at a casino, but not mention that they have lost far more on other nights.

  But at one time there were no casinos in New Jersey.  There was no gambling at all.  Then someone suggested The Lottery.

  The idea of the lottery was simple.  The state needed money to finance programs for the elderly and for education.  Rather than raise taxes, the state could sell lottery tickets and use the proceeds to meet these needs.  By offering million dollar prizes, they would create an incentive for people to spend a few dollars each week on chances.  After all--and this was a strong argument at the time--there was a very profitable lottery in at least one of our bordering states, and residents of New Jersey were buying chances for that lottery.  That was money funding programs from which we received no benefit.  The new lottery would at least be money spent on our own problems.

  The point that most people miss is that the lottery is first and foremost a voluntary tax.  The state makes millions of dollars from selling chances.  It makes enough money to compensate all of the thousands of ticket retailers, finance a rather significant management infrastructure, do extensive television and radio advertising in the first and fourth largest media markets in the United States, pay cash prizes running into millions of dollars, and still justify its existence as a revenue source.  People are paying this tax, voluntarily, in the amount of millions of dollars every month.

  The system is promoted in two ways.  On the one hand, the state frequently harps on all the good things which have been done with lottery collections.  Don't be upset about your losses, it suggests, because your money has gone to a good cause.  At the same time, there is a constant emphasis on the huge amounts of money which could be won.  Never mind that you have a better chance of being killed by street crime, there's a chance that you might never have to work again.  It's something for nothing--spend a dollar or two on the lottery, and find yourself on easy street.  And the money flows like water.

  But who is paying this tax?  It is said that the majority of winners are "middle class", and that therefore they must be buying the majority of the tickets.  This makes a lot of sense.  After all, Donald Trump isn't going to buy a lot of lottery tickets, because he can use his money to make more millions much more effectively.  And the poor would love to win, but they can only spend so much on the dream.  Many of them spend ten dollars a day, some spend over a hundred dollars a week, on the dream.  They scratch off instant lose tickets before they leave the store, and if they win a few dollars they spend it on more tickets.  But most of the poor can't afford to buy handfuls of tickets every day, so the dream remains elusive.

  Perhaps the concept of "middle class" is elusive; the definition certainly should be different in affluent Bergen County than it is in depressed Salem County.  But it is certainly clear that the rich aren't buying a lot of tickets.  And if we remember that the lottery is primarily a tax, we should realize that the burden is unevenly laid on the taxpayers.  The money is coming from taxpayers who are not rich; although it's difficult to know who buys these tickets (and it seems no effective studies have been done), there is tendency for lottery expenditures to be inversely proportional to income within a region, until an income level is reached below which expenditures must decrease due to lack of funds.  More simply put, the less money you make the more likely you are to spend a larger portion of that money on lottery tickets, unless you can't afford them.

  I don't know what the money from the lottery has actually funded, because I'm not terribly interested in it.  I don't buy lottery tickets, because I have enough expenses and am not foolish enough to expect to win.  They seem very like cigarettes to me--they give a bit of pleasure at a high financial and personal cost.  But I often see people buying cigarettes and lottery tickets.  And when I see elderly people spending ten or fifteen dollars on tickets, I remember that we were told how much good the lottery would do for our elderly; and I think that indeed the lottery has done something for our elderly.

  It has given them a way to dispose of their money.

M. J. Young Net

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