The lottery remains a loser

The lottery remains a loser

- in Fitzsimon File

Poverty is on the rise in North Carolina and state policymakers are making it worse. The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 17.6 percent of the people in the state lived in poverty in 2009 and 2010. And that’s the average. It is much higher in many counties as data released this week will undoubtedly show.

The response by the General Assembly this summer to the rising poverty rate was to slash programs that help low-income families, from mental health services to early childhood programs. Tuition was increased at community colleges and universities and scholarship programs were cut.

Lawmakers reduced Medicaid by more than $2 billion when you take into account the federal matching funds lost because of state cuts. That will mean fewer health care services to people who are uninsured at a time when the census figures also show almost 20 percent of the people in North Carolina are not covered by an insurance plan.

But all is not lost. State officials want you to know that no matter how poor you are, you can buy a lottery ticket and count on that one in a million chance of striking it rich.

In fact, the state desperately needs you to buy a lottery ticket because as a new report from the Education and Law Project of the N.C. Justice shows, lottery revenues are increasingly being used to replace other education funding.

That’s not the way it was supposed to be of course. We were promised that lottery revenues would supplement funding for the schools, not replace money already being spent.

Lottery officials convinced the General Assembly a few years to weaken a law that mandated that 35 percent of lottery revenues go to education. Now that is just a target, not a requirement.

Lottery officials say reducing that percentage and spending more on advertising allowed them to increase sales enough to actually increase the overall contribution to education.

That means enticing the poor into paying even more to fund schools because lawmakers would rather not fund it honestly through the state’s general revenues.

An investigation last year by N.C. Policy Watch found that the counties with the highest per capita lottery sales were almost all also the counties with the highest poverty rates.

Lottery officials don’t keep data on who plays. They’d rather not know apparently, but studies in other states and the Policy Watch investigation make it fairly obvious who is playing the most in North Carolina, people most desperate to improve their financial situation who are also people who can least afford to respond to the ubiquitous lottery ads and waste their hard-earned money.

Most Republicans opposed the lottery when it was created but unfortunately have done little to rein it in now that they control the General Assembly.

It is maddening but it not complicated. Poverty is on the rise in North Carolina and the poor play the lottery disproportionately. Education funding is also being reduced at the same time the lottery is increasingly replacing existing education funding.

It is a formula that doesn’t make sense for schools or for the low income families the state is exploiting.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.