A Lottery for Tennessee? / #4
By: Rubel Shelly

American government policies for the last several decades have been driven by a commitment to revenue redistribution. And just what in the world is that? It is a perceived moral obligation on the part of government to redistribute the wealth of the richer members of our society to those who are marginal, poor, and otherwise denied access to maximal opportunities for sharing in the American dream.

These are the policies that created Social Security, Medicare, and a host of similar programs. On both federal and state levels, we want people to have access to health care, education, and the like. Whether one is liberal or conservative, some degree of commitment to helping the weakest among us is deemed right and obligatory.

Lotteries do just the opposite. They do not distribute the wealth of better-off citizens to worse-off persons and families. To the contrary, everyone who has studied the demographics of lotteries in America has found that poor people buy a disproportionate number of lottery tickets. The most vulnerable populations in Georgia, Florida, or any other state with a lottery can be found simply by going to the counties or ZIP codes with the lowest per-capita income in those states. There is something perverse about that, don’t you think?

So-called progressive taxation requires those who make more money to pay more taxes. Thus the wealthier people pay more to fund education, for example, than those earning less. But lotteries are an example of regressive taxation in which those from the poorest households channel their income to middle- and upper-class people. How so? Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship Program which is funded from lottery income goes principally to high-performing students who come from affluent families whose children went to the best secondary schools. So the poor are funding the higher education of the already-well-to-do in disproportionate numbers.

The response to this is: But nobody has to play the lottery. Correct. And if Georgia or Florida or Tennessee simply made the lottery available to people, the libertarian argument of permitting people to do whatever they want would be more credible. But as soon as the lottery becomes legal, a state has to hire advertising experts to lure people to the lottery in order to pump up state revenues. And guess what those experts know – and do? They know their best players are the poor, less-educated, and minorities – and go after them aggressively. The people whose lives are the most difficult are the ones most easily seduced by manipulative lottery ads.

The essence of the ads will always be: Get rich quick by blind, dumb luck – as opposed to working hard and accumulating wealth over the long haul. That message preys on people. Victimizes them. Hurts them. And it is the message state-sponsored gambling is forced to promote.

Two Duke University professors have published research submitted to the government’s National Gambling Impact Study Commission in 1997 which shows that 5% of lottery players account for 51% of sales and spend an average of $3,500 a year on tickets. They also found that the most frequent players are from households making less than $10,000 a year. Does that sound like something you should support?

The big payoff from gambling is for the gambling industry and politicians – not the public, not schools, and not the general welfare. Lotteries are just bad bets.