from The Wall Street Journal, Powerbull: The Lottery Loves Poverty by Arthur Brooks
Harmless entertainment, you may say, but poor people don’t see it that way. They tend to view lottery tickets as an investment. Duke University social scientists Charles Clotfelter and Philip Cook reported in a 1990 study that people earning less than $30,000 a year are 25% more likely to say they play the lottery for the money rather than the entertainment.
These kinds of ads seduce poor people with the illusion of riches. Even if someone feels compelled to throw a financial “Hail Mary,” the lottery is a terrible choice. The odds of winning last week’s jackpot were about 1 in 292 million. And the average return from $1 spent on lottery tickets is 52 cents, according to a 2002 paper by Melissa Kearney, an economist now at the University of Maryland.
What’s the social cost of all this? Ms. Kearney says lottery players finance their tickets largely by cutting spending on necessities. After a state introduces the lotto, the bottom third of households shift about 3% of their food expenditures and 7% of their mortgage payments, rent and other bills. Effectively, the lottery works like a regressive tax.
It might strike you as bizarre that the government spends billions on nutrition and housing programs for the poor while simultaneously encouraging poor people to move their own money away from these necessities and toward the state’s gambling monopoly. In fact, that $70 billion in annual lottery revenues is strikingly close to what the government spends on food stamps. Is there any set of policies more contradictory than pushing lotto tickets on poor people, and then signing them up for welfare programs that make them financially dependent on the government?
Politicians who profess a desire to alleviate poverty often lament how few levers they have to pull. So here’s a novel idea: Stop selling poor people a mirage of the American dream at the end of a convenience-store line.