The troubling lottery reality behind the Powerball fever

The troubling lottery reality behind the Powerball fever

ff-1-12bThe lottery has been in the news nonstop for the last couple of weeks as the Powerball jackpot rose to almost $1.5 billion. There have been interviews with people buying tickets and quotes from store clerks selling them and even advice on what to do if you win, though the odds are decidedly against it, roughly one in 300 million.

The lottery industry loves it all of course, more excitement means more players and more cash for the companies who make the tickets and the machines.

State lotteries like ours in North Carolina like it too. Higher jackpots mean more media coverage and more sales and sales is the only way they judge success. One lottery official told the Charlotte Observer that it is indeed “an exciting time for us at the lottery.”

The Powerball frenzy has prompted some news outlets to remind their audiences where the lottery proceeds go in North Carolina, to support staff at schools, PreK programs, college scholarships and school construction.

Lawmakers have changed that formula in recent years and in the last two sessions have considered increasing the amount the lottery spends on advertising its games but thankfully have decided against it.

But it’s still troubling that how many kids get a college scholarship or have access to PreK programs depends in part on how many people the lottery can convince to buy tickets whether they can afford to buy them or not.

It’s also worth remembering that the state spends $500 less per capita on education than it spent in 2008 even with the growth in sales of the “education lottery.”

Left out of many of the stories is where the lottery proceeds come from—who plays and where do they live. A report by NC Policy Watch two years ago found that the ten counties with the highest lottery ticket sales per capita were clustered in low-income areas in the eastern part of the state.

The top counties in per capita sales all had poverty rates of more than 20 percent. In Halifax County where the poverty rate was pushing 30 percent, residents were spending almost $600 a year.

Those are the same counties where federal food stamp benefits are being cut off thanks to the General Assembly, where the cuts to unemployment compensation for laid off workers are most painfully felt, and where the elimination of the state Earned Income Tax Credit hits home for many low-wage working families.

And much of the lottery spending isn’t on Powerball tickets anyway, but on daily scratch off games that are aggressively marketed. It’s not hard to see that the advertising works, with huddles of low-income folks scratching off ticket after ticket in the corners of convenience stores across the state.

Lottery officials don’t keep data on who plays. They’d rather not know apparently, but studies in other states and the Policy Watch report make it fairly obvious who is playing the most, 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.

Lottery officials don’t seem to think about that much and told WUNC radio that they are just trying to run “fun games to help a good cause.” Sounds like a harmless church raffle, until you consider the plight of many of the people playing and the amount of advertising the lottery uses to entice them.

Lottery defenders always point to the education programs the proceeds support as justification for the state being in the huckster business, but we have a revenue system that is supposed to support education and other vital state services.

Instead we rely on people in Halifax County spending $600 a year to help fund our schools. That was true before the Powerball jackpot reached a billion dollars and it will be true after the jackpot is gone.

Desperate folks in the poorest counties will still be huddled in the corners of the stores scratching off ticket after ticket hoping to strike it rich.

Lottery officials are counting on it.