Except there is this one organization with an ad campaign that gets under my skin: the Arizona Lottery. Their catch phrase: "You Can't Win If You Don't Play." Which is both clever and ironic, because they only way citizens win, in the aggregate, is by not playing. I found a video of one of their older ads which, I think, based on the video game graphics and the actor with the humongous plastic glasses, is trying to target gamers, or hipsters, or both.
It turns out that the Arizona Lottery has a whole YouTube channel, with several videos showing how the money gathered from lottery tickets fund great programs. One of my favorites is the Audubon Center, which takes inner city children and connects them with nature, teaching them science in an authentic environment. Lottery monies also fund Arizona Healthy Families, a fantastic program that addresses various issues with at-risk families. Here is a video that shows some of the benefits gained when citizens purchase lottery tickets:
I actually love the sound of these programs. I think it's important to fund them, too. But here's the rub: the dollars that the state gets from the lottery aren't coming out of thin air. Individual citizens have to spend their after-tax earnings on tickets, if the lotteries are to raise funds. Disproportionately, lottery tickets are being purchased by low income households, the very people who can least afford to gamble with a negative expected return. Ironically, the tickets are being disproportionately purchased by the same disadvantaged groups the government wants to help via these programs.
But when state governments create a gambling system that takes money from the poor, it violates the social contract. It is the states' responsibility to create programs that aid their poorest citizens. But because, by definition, lotteries take more money away from citizens than they can possibly give back, nearly all winnings are gone after the first five years, and lotteries are linked to serious gambling problems, they violate this core responsibility. And while it might be excusable for private casinos to make huge sums of money off of their customers, it's quite another thing for a state government to run its own gambling scheme, and to promote it on the public airwaves, using funds already garnered from that gambling.
The argument can be made that lotteries are simply a creative tax: a way for citizens to voluntarily contribute to the state coffers while playing a fun game, and giving themselves a remote chance to strike it rich. And since some of the money goes towards education and programs that help citizens in need, isn't it justifiable to fund these programs via a voluntary tax?
But as far as taxes go, a lottery is a terribly inefficient way to raise money. According to this Salon article, the majority of collected funds are paid out to the handful of lottery winners and to the stores selling the tickets. With 8% going to administrative costs (and, presumably, advertising on prime time television), only about 30% of all ticket revenue goes to the state. So the lottery system is a great way to take a lot of money from a wide group of citizens and to concentrate it with a few winners, who are likely to spend every penny in the next half decade. But with only thirty cents of every dollar making it into the state budget, it is an awful way to raise money for education or social programs.
If programs are in need of funding, there are better options than state-sponsored gambling. Worthwhile programs should, instead, be funded via fair, progressive taxation. If such a step is necessary, legislators should have the courage to raise income taxes, rather than to take the easy way out via a voluntary, but regressive, tax like a lottery.
I presume that most of the readers of this blog do not participate in lotteries or many other forms of gambling. But if you agree that lotteries are not for the public good, I'd ask that you click this link to find and contact your district's state legislators. I'll be sending this post to my State Senator Katie Hobbs, as well as State Representatives Chad Campbell and Lela Alston. Naive dreamer that I am, there is a part of me that thinks the practice could be stopped if enough people voiced their opposition. In keeping with the theme of this post though, maybe one of you readers will want to bet me on it.
*Photo of a losing lottery ticket is from Iain Watson at Flickr Creative Commons.