February 21, 2003
Lottery Pits State Against Citizens
by Donald G. Mashburn

At last count, 38 states and the District of Columbia had government-run lotteries. The lottery industry brings in some $40 billion a year, and may soon add to that. Lottery proponents in Alabama and Oklahoma are pushing hard for the legalized gambling that both states previously shunned.

Oklahoma will match traditionally conservative Christian values and the ever-growing demands for more funding of education and bigger state government.

In getting elected governor, Oklahoma’s new Democratic Governor Brad Henry, carrying the colors of the state teachers union, made a state lottery the centerpiece of his platform. Like any “good” politician, he made it sound easy, with educational funding flowing in like found money.

Henry didn’t mention that a state lottery inevitably pits the state against its citizens. Nor did he mention how much of that “found” money would make it past the lottery managers and promoters – historically, only about 31 cents of every dollar.

Henry and other lottery proponents never address questions as to what kind of state do citizens want for their children, or where do citizens draw the line on where money for education is to come from?

An objective analysis of the lottery brings up another question: Wouldn’t it be wiser to spend state dollars to educate people on the risks of gambling, and encourage them to spend their money on their families?

Any balanced view of education funding won’t let us talk about lotteries solely in money terms. Torture the numbers anyway you wish – with or without the dollar signs – and any objective analysis eventually works around to the right and wrong of financing our children’s education with gambling money.

If this were not so, then we could talk about the money to be raised via the “Nevada Plan,” or some similar “plan.” If money is to be the measure, then any form of gambling and prostitution could be thrown into the funding mix.

But many who cringe at the thought of financing schools with such activities, support a “lottery for education” because it’s for a “good cause.” But does it pass the test for “good” and “right?” And is the “found” money worth the offsetting costs?

You don’t have to be too bright to figure out that gambling comes freighted with certain social costs, and that these should be figured in when evaluating the monetary gains. The working poor – futilely trying to “strike it rich” – will contribute a disproportionate share of the dollars flowing to lottery promoters and state coffers.

And on a per-head basis, the “well off” can afford more tickets, and have a better chance at winning than the working stiff who can blow only so many bucks from each paycheck on gambling.

So, no matter how much lipstick you put on the gambling hog, or how you slice the golden goose baloney dispensed by lottery supporters, lotteries are financed mostly by those who can least afford having their take-home pay reduced.

And once a lottery is implemented, the state is placed in the sorry position of having to spend some of its money on “bait advertising” to convince its citizens to spend even more on lottery tickets.

Further, a fair evaluation of lotteries reveals the quirk common to all “gambling for education” schemes: That of the working poor digging deep to pay for scholarships and lower education costs for the more affluent.

The lottery proposal approved by a committee in the Oklahoma House calls for “at least” 45 percent of proceeds – however they’re calculated – to go for such things as building new facilities (no mention of what’s to be done with closed schools), endowed professor chairmanships, scholarships, and, of course, improved teacher pay. The complete list is rich with things that warm the hearts of the education-political alliance.

The proposal gives lower income workers the rare opportunity to help endow a “professor chairmanship” when they spend their hard-earned money on lottery tickets!

By and large, these lower income workers also have less education. How ironic, then, that those with less education contribute, through the “educational” lottery, to ease the financial burdens of the more affluent.

But who’s to complain? The state sanctions the money transfer. And it’s for a good cause, isn’t it? Otherwise, why would a state participate in the con game of urging its citizens to “Hit it big – buy more lottery tickets?”