Not Worth the Gamble

PEOPLE GAMBLE—always have, and always will. But when the state decides to encourage this human tendency and exploit it for its own profit, then we definitely have a moral problem.

In December, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that it is permissible for states to sell lottery tickets online, making it easier for state governments to bilk their citizens. Illinois internet lottery sales were slated to begin in late March. Although the sales are limited to state residents, the greater convenience of internet buying will likely cause more people to try the lottery.

In contrast to a “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes, in the case of the lottery the state becomes a pusher of gambling. The government, rather than serving and protecting its people, is “the house,” committed to creating more losers to make more money.

When we follow the advertising money, we discover that the lottery has been sold primarily to the poor and those on fixed incomes: The billboards are in the inner city, not the upscale suburbs. The lottery is promoted in such places with the deceitful promise that a buyer has a good chance to win security for a lifetime.

The Illinois Lottery was started in 1974 and, since 1985, its profits have gone by law to fund public education. In a classic example of “bait and switch,” however, legislators put the lottery money into school funding—but redirected the former funds to other parts of the state budget. Public education remains a major concern in Illinois, even as the lottery has added gimmick after gimmick over the years. Today the state legislature budgets only 75 percent of what is, according to an advisory committee, the minimum acceptable spending per student; it has almost a billion dollars in unmet obligations to the schools.

Some have lamented that the lottery was the beginning of a slippery slope toward permitting more forms of gambling in Illinois. In reality, it’s less of a slope than a free fall. Ten casinos have been introduced and there is current back-room negotiation for five more; permission has been granted for up to 40,000 video gambling machines in bars, truck stops, and veterans’ halls; and racetrack owners are asking to install slot machines.

This downward trajectory exacts a high price. Researcher Earl Grinols of Baylor University has isolated public costs for crime, embezzlement, illness, lost workdays, foreclosures, and family disintegration directly attributable to gambling. He found that the public pays more than it gets: Society spends $3 on such costs for every $1 of increased tax income or other “social benefit” from gambling.

Internet lottery sales will only aggravate the problem. Gambling machine manufacturers have put enormous sophistication into manipulating the activity of players. The designers’ goal is to seduce people into, in industry parlance, “playing to extinction.” Now with lottery sales on the internet, every home computer, iPad, and smartphone becomes a machine of deception.

The state government’s dependence on lottery sales is cowardly—a way for legislators to avoid honestly calculating the real costs of education, public services, and infrastructure repairs and then calling on citizens to be responsible through a fair tax structure. The Justice Department has given this legislative dodge a bit more cover, but it is a gamble that subverts the common good.

Phil Blackwell is senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.

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