The next time you consider buying a lottery ticket, don’t. Stop supporting a system based on empty promises and misguided dreams. With almost three decades of lottery history in Minnesota, it is clear that the promise to provide extra funding for the environment has not been delivered. The lottery is hurting people, and the money isn’t going where we thought it would. Continuing it is immoral and unethical.
The Legislature introduced us to the lottery in 1989. The idea was sold as a voluntary, supplemental source of revenue for otherwise-underfunded environmental causes. That’s right — “voluntary.” What could it hurt to let people contribute to the environment? We Minnesotans are proud of our support of education, social progress and environmental sensitivity.
Since it was thought to be a win for everyone, it was not a surprise that 59 percent of us voted to change our Constitution to allow state-sponsored lotteries. We started our slide down a very slippery slope.
Minnesotans were not experienced gamblers. It took a major advertising campaign to convince us to buy tickets. Three decades later, look what has happened. When you visit a convenience store or the service counter of your grocery store, you will find a colorful maze of lottery tickets, headlined by the Powerball. The Legislature might argue that this explosion simply gives people what they want. But why would any rational person buy a ticket knowing there is almost no chance to win? And further, that only 10 cents from each dollar goes to the environment, with another 14 cents going to the state general fund? We have been fooled.
The recent Powerball extravaganza demonstrates just how misguided it is to use the lottery as a state fundraiser. At the original odds of 175 million to 1, Powerball jackpots were not big enough to draw sales; the game was losing its audience. An easy fix: Make the jackpot bigger by making the odds even more impossible. In July 2015, Powerball administrators did so and, as expected, sales exploded. The new odds: 1 chance in 292 million.
Nothing else in life has odds as stacked against us. It is 246 times more likely that you will be struck by lightning and 23,000 times more likely that you will make a hole-in-one if you happen to play golf. But people do not understand odds. Their eyes are fixed on the prize.
But it’s only $2 — what’s the big deal? For many, buying a few tickets is entertainment, possibly a little more exciting than using the money to light the fireplace. At least the ticket gives you a colorful reminder of your folly. But in 2012, Minnesotans spent $82 per capita on lottery and scratch-off tickets. This is a shocking number! Someone is buying a lot of tickets.
In 1999, researchers from Duke University reported that households with incomes under $10,000 are averaging just under $600 per year in lottery tickets. For many “players,” this is not money they can afford to burn. It comes from the budget for food or gas or heat or the kid’s clothing. There are hundreds of other uses for the money, but instead it is spent on the chance to win unimaginable wealth. The lottery administration sells a lie to the people least able to afford being taken in by this empty promise. This is immoral.
Why would the state allow and even encourage a lottery? This is the unethical part. Legislators wanted the money. How clever — a silent tax that is paid by volunteers. While this is appealing on the surface, there could not be a more inefficient way to raise dollars for K-12 education, health care, aid to local governments, public safety and the environment. Did anyone do the math? The state received about $21 million on sales of about $87 million from the last Powerball cycle. That $87 million could have been spent on goods and services or even put in the bank. It could have encouraged more jobs and better lives. Instead, $66 million of it left the state.
Oh, but it gets worse. Prof. Patrick Pierce of Indiana’s St. Mary’s College studied how lottery money is spent throughout the country. Would it surprise you to learn that his research showed a first-year jump in funding for targeted projects? But by the eighth year, spending is often lower than would have been expected without the lottery. Pierce found that the lottery money was often diverted to voter-friendly tax cuts. Does “rob the poor to pay the rich” have a nice ring?
We think the lottery is harmless, because no one is forced to play. Far from being harmless, it diverts money from more beneficial alternatives, sends huge amounts of money out of our state, is one of the most inefficient means of raising tax revenue and takes money from those least able to pay.
Stop taking part. Stop buying lottery or scratch-off tickets. Stop supporting an unethical and immoral system. Like a pack of cigarettes, every ticket should come with a warning: “You have no chance to win. Long-term use will impair your financial health.”
Bill Boyt, of Edina, is a retired consultant.