Sometimes, I like to play the lottery.
Not often. Usually when the jackpot gets north of, say, $200 million. Like everybody else, I start to think of life with money: Buying a nice house, sending the kid to a fancy college, maybe starting a vanity magazine or website where I hire all my writer friends, maybe even hire a personal trainer. Mostly, though, I refrain: I’ve heard the statistics — the ones about how you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to win the lottery — and figure I’m probably not going to be the person who beats the odds.
So it’s with a certain level of hypocrisy that I offer the two facts and one suggestion for your consideration:
• FACT: The state of Pennsylvania faces a budget deficit of $1 billion.
• FACT: Lawmakers are considering digging out of the hole, in part, by expanding the lottery. “Our focus is on what can generate additional revenue for the state lottery,” a legislative spokesman told NewsWorks. “We believe that expanding to new games can do that.”
• SUGGESTION: Doing so would be a sin.
Yes, I’m serious.
Understand: I don’t mean “sin” in the sense that games of chance — like dancing and drinking liquor — were one widely thought to be against God’s will.
But let’s be clear: Raising revenues by expanding the lottery amounts to nothing more than balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. And yes: That’s immoral.
It’s not easy to find demographic numbers on players of the lottery in Pennsylvania: One mention from the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries suggests that the players are more likely, if not to be poor, then less well-off: Players with at least a high school education make up 87 percent of “heavy” players; those with “some” college education make up 39 percent of heavy players. That’s about what is publicly known: The Lottery is good at generating reports about the benefits it produces, the profits it reaps, and its plan to capture even more customers, but publicly, at least, it’s apparently incurious about who is doing the actual buying of its services.
One notable study, in Pittsburgh a few years back, found that people who felt poor bought twice as many lottery tickets as people who felt more affluent. "Some poor people see playing the lottery as their best opportunity for improving their financial situations, albeit wrongly so," said one of the study’s authors.
That reflects what we know about lottery players in the rest of the United States:
• “Studies of lottery ticket sales in North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Texas and Connecticut found that per capita lottery sales are consistently higher in the poorest counties and tickets are more likely to be purchased by unemployed individuals.” [Salon]
• “Statistics from South Carolina highlight the lottery’s reliance on low earners: People in households earning under $40,000 made up 54 percent of frequent players, while constituting only 28 percent of the state’s population.” [Salon]
• “49 percent of Californians with less than a high school education participated during one week in 1986, compared to 30 percent of those with a college degree. Lottery play was most popular among laborers and least among advanced professionals.” [American Economic Association]
• “A 1994 study from Indiana University found that from 1983 to 1991 lottery sales tended to rise with unemployment rates.”[National Tax Journal]
And so on and so forth. Check this Business Insider link for even more, very similar tidbits. Basically, the people who do the most buying of lottery tickets are those who can least afford it, who most need their spare cash for other purposes.
Now: You can argue that nobody forces anybody to buy a lottery ticket — that if it exists as a tax on the poor, it’s one that’s voluntarily accepted and paid. You could make a similar argument about a trap baited with cheese: Sure it’s alluring! Not our fault, though, if people get caught and maimed in it!
Remember, too, the budget deficit faced by General Assembly Republicans is one they’ve made. They know they can’t further cut public services like education without a major backlash; they’re stuck between that hard fact and their own promises never, ever to raise taxes.
Which leaves Pennsylvania in the absurd position of leaving natural resources like the Marcellus Shale relatively untapped as a revenue source, even as the state leaders consider raising cash by luring more the the state’s neediest residents with the fiscal equivalent of a snake-oil cure. These are the same folks who often complain about the horrible choices made by the poor, even as they work diligently to expand the bad options available.
It’s wrong. It really is a sin. The General Assembly, led by many pious Christian men, should know better. Balance the budget, folks, but please: Try to do it without causing more pain to the state’s poor.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.