The Follies of the so-called education lottery

The Follies of the so-called education lottery

SO_LottoHere we go again.

The folks running the state lottery want everybody to know that they can sell more tickets and rake in millions of more dollars from the poorest areas of the state if they can spend more money trying to convince people to play and if they are allowed to sell tickets online and on smart phones.

And of course they’d love the chance to put video lottery terminals everywhere too.

Lottery officials made the presentation at a legislative oversight committee meeting where they were asked to talk about ways to raise more revenue for the state—and they have a lot of them.

Judging from a WRAL-TV report, there did appear to be a few sane voices in the room. Rep. Pat Hurley wanted to know if all the new games and ramped up advertising would put a strain on the social services budget, as the lottery preys on folks already struggling to make ends meet.

Lottery Director Alice Garland replied that the lottery funds programs to help people with gambling problems. Of course, the people have to call in to get assistance and that’s mostly for people with a gambling addiction not people who are living on the edge and buying lottery tickets out of desperation after being inundated with all the ads talking about their chances to win millions of dollars.

It’s worth noting that North Carolina ranks last in the country in the percentage of laid off workers who receive unemployment insurance but no worry, they can buy lottery tickets and turn their lives around.

House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, who isn’t right about much, is right about the lottery and pointed out that lottery ads are about enticing people to play, which is technically a violation of the state laws that govern the lottery.

Garland said her staff looks closely at ads to see if they induce people to play.

Of course the ads are enticing people. That’s what commercials are designed to do.

Rep. Nelson Dollar wondered what the difference was between the lottery operating video terminals and private video poker or video sweepstakes machines, which the General Assembly has outlawed.

Garland told the committee that there were big differences, most notably state regulation and then added that “there’s security, there’s integrity, there’s reporting and there’s responsible gaming.”

Integrity and responsible are two words not generally associated with a strategy where funding for education programs depends on how many people the state can convince to throw its money away on a one in ten million chance of striking it rich.

And while there’s some reporting of the numbers, there has never been a demographic analysis of who plays the lottery in North Carolina. Lottery officials don’t keep the data. They apparently don’t want to know.

Studies elsewhere have shown that low-income people are more likely to buy lottery tickets and spend a higher share of their income on the games that middle class and wealthy people.

That is supported by the county sales information that is available. A report by NC Policy Watch two years ago found that the ten counties with the highest lottery ticket sales per capita were clustered in low-income areas in the eastern part of the state.

The top counties in per capita sales all had poverty rates of more than 20 percent at the time. In Halifax County where the poverty rate was pushing 30 percent, residents were spending almost $600 a year.

That doesn’t sound much like responsible gaming, but the lottery’s success depends on folks in low-income areas buying lots of tickets. And just wait until folks there can play on their phones or on a terminal at the local convenience store when they are buying bread or milk.

And remember this is your state government making this happen.

Integrity is definitely not the word that comes to mind.