Column | Tired, Poor, Huddled Masses Yearning To Play Lottery

A couple of years ago I was a pallbearer for a fellow in denial about his gambling addiction, so I viewed with interest the Wall Street Journal opinion piece “Powerbull: The Lottery Loves Poverty,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Brooks cited scholars who said the poorest one-third of Americans buy more than half of all lottery tickets (which is why states advertise heavily in poor neighborhoods). He also quoted a study that finds lottery players finance their tickets largely by cutting spending on necessities; after a state introduces the lottery, the bottom third of households shift about 3 percent of their food expenditures and 7 percent of their mortgage payments, rent and other bills.

(The states know which side their bread is buttered on, even if the citizens can’t afford bread.)

Brooks lamented the absurdity of the government spending billions on nutrition and housing programs for the poor while simultaneously encouraging cash-strapped people to sink their own money into state lotteries. It’s like the states have turned into your bullying big brother. (“Stop hitting yourself! Why do you keep hitting yourself???”)

Most of our state legislatures have taken bipartisan action to drive a stake through the heart of the Puritan work ethic. Nowadays we worship Urethra, the goddess of (urinating) away your family’s savings.

Granted, the 44-state Powerball does deserve credit for getting states to cooperate on something, unlike their usual “Buy your home state’s products first” campaigns, “Don’t leave the state for a college education” warnings and backstabbing deals to keep factories from settling in other states. (“Land of 10,000 Lakes? Sure, they need that many to drown all the cooties!”)

Many low-income individuals see the lottery as an investment. But a 2002 paper by Melissa Kearney (now an economist at the University of Maryland) says the average return from $1 spent on lottery tickets is 52 cents. You’d do better economically by burying your cash in the back yard – while accidentally rupturing a natural gas pipeline and burning down the neighborhood.

Some poor people will insist they play just for fun; but when I think about all the types of amusements out there, lottery fever seems like a pathetic reenactment of Charlie Brown’s trick-or-treating escapades. (“I got an Xbox.” “I got a canoe.” “I got a little card to scratch.”)

Many states legitimize the lottery by devoting part of the proceeds to education (my son will benefit from Tennessee’s lottery when he starts college in four years), but the practice sends a mixed message. When some inbred, knuckle-dragging, third-grade drop-out DOES manage to win an eight-figure prize, it’s hard to stay focused on fourth-period trigonometry.

Far be it from me to begrudge anyone their fantasies about telling off their boss or seizing their chance at a “life-changing opportunity.” But I hope retailers don’t expand the promotional gimmick beyond lottery tickets. (“Blow dryers with frayed electrical cords: a potentially life-changing opportunity!”)

And can states lighten up a little on predatory marketing? A marketing plan for Ohio’s lottery some years back recommended scheduling campaigns to coincide with the distribution of “government benefits, payroll and Social Security payments.” With today’s more sophisticated advertising, lottery appeals can be hyper-focused. (“Hey, Mike – that left kidney of yours is looking mighty superfluous right now. It’s a seller’s market. And right big toes – talk about easy money!”)