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The lottery is screwed up

BY SAMUEL CLEARY | APRIL 05, 2012 6:30 AM

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There will always be things you say you'll never do. But then you do them because they are cheap, addicting, and provide you with some sick degree of instant gratification.

Like smoking cigarettes or going to a strip club, the lottery always seemed like a stupid thing to spend my money on — until I did it.

Obviously, I didn't win, but I've been doing some thinking about how the lottery's not such a good idea. To be frank, it's pretty screwed up: statistically, economically, and psychologically.

If you played the lottery last week, your chances of winning were 1 in 175 million. That means you were 22 times more likely to get attacked by a shark than win. Yet for some reason, millions and millions of Americans lined up to buy tickets.

It seems like a sick trick — and the really depressing part is that the government's doing it.

In 2009, 42 of the 50 states had lotteries. The lotto imposes a universal regressive tax of 38 percent, which results in a heck of a lot of profit for the government. Ticket sales totaled to $52.3 billon according to the Census Bureau, $17.7 billion of which was retained by state governments.

Anyone else have a problem with that?

In 2010, states collected an average of $58 per capita in revenue from their lottery programs — the highest revenue collected was $370 per capita in Delaware.

Aside from the fact that our government is essentially functioning as a casino owner, the lotto is not as good for state budgets as it's made out to be. Lotteries have long been advertised as being supportive of a certain cause, usually education.

Yet, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission reported in the past, "There is reason to doubt if earmarked lottery revenues in fact have the effect of increasing funds available for the specified purpose."

But the low odds of winning and the political-economic motivations of the lotto aren't what scare me. It's the control of the game and what it does to us emotionally. In a very dark sense, the lottery an awful kind of sorcery — an intersection between mind control and psycho-cultural flaws — we've managed to capitalize and quantify something that's abstract: hope.

Hope is something you can't force, but now, you can buy it. A guy can have the worst day of his life, buy a lotto ticket, and suddenly — even if only for a moment — feel as if he has potential, as if things could go his way, as if he's done something that could make him something he's too lazy to work to become.

And this lends credit to the huge numbers of studies saying the cost of the lottery disproportionately affects low-income households. These individuals are more susceptible to the hope broadcasted by a $640 million jackpot. In turn, they spend a greater portion of their income on lottery tickets than do high-income individuals.

While the poor waste their money, the government is collecting. Because it only pays out an average of 60 percent of the lottery revenues, the game is fixed, and the house wins either way.

You pay more, you get nothing, they get 40 percent of the cut.

For me, that's the reality that made me step back and think. Not the statistics, not the stupidity, but the fact that our government's in the gambling business trying to capitalize on our shallowness and lack of self-control. The lottery is a drug: It's a pill that we take to give us a couple of hours of hope and fill an evening with excitement.


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