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In our opinion: Mega Millions aside, lotteries are bad public policy

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

While the typical American household spends approximately $169 on lottery tickets every year, low-income families spend nearly twice that much, and the poorest families making less than $10,000 per year spend an average of $589 annually on lotteries.

Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

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The Mega Millions lottery jackpot of $636 million is to be split between two ticketholders, making it the second largest such prize in U.S. history. At one point, in Florida alone, $8,000 in tickets was sold every minute to hopefuls dreaming of a better life. It’s not surprising, then, that the tantalizing prospect of a colossal fortune is most appealing to those in dire circumstances.

While the typical American household spends approximately $169 on lottery tickets every year, low-income families spend nearly twice that much, and the poorest families making less than $10,000 per year spend an average of $589 annually on lotteries. That means people in grinding poverty waste over 5 percent of their gross income gambling on a big win that never comes.

It’s clear then, that lotteries are a de facto regressive tax shouldered disproportionately by the poor. A study in South Carolina revealed that those making less than $40,000 per year constitute just over a quarter of the state’s total population, but they account for 53.4 percent of South Carolina’s lottery ticket purchases. While it is certainly true that no one is forced to buy lottery tickets, it is also true that states do everything possible to downplay the astronomical odds against winning in order to give false hope to the destitute.

The odds of winning the current Mega Millions jackpot were 1 in 259 million. By way of comparison, you are 15 times more likely to have identical quadruplets and 259 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to have a ticket with the winning Mega Millions numbers on it. Yet the lure of easy money, especially for those who have so little, is often next to impossible to resist.

Lottery advocates like to point to the social benefits of lottery revenue used to fund education and other worthy programs. Yet even those benefits have proven elusive, since lottery revenue is generally used to replace other funding sources rather than to supplement them. In 24 states that dedicate lottery money to education, only three of them report higher levels of education spending, with education spending remaining flat or actually decreasing in the other twenty-one.

In addition to this, lotteries devalue the traditional ethic behind taxes, which is that people have a duty to pay a portion of their wealth to sustain legitimate services. Instead, lotteries offer the lure of sudden wealth in exchange for supporting government, which likely makes people less civically engaged.

This is a terrible way to fund the government, and it’s a devastating tax on those who can least afford it. As of this writing, nobody knows who the Mega Millions winners are, but it’s not hard to see who lost.

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