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Money for Nothing

Kris Schnee

Since the recent $197 million state lottery drawing, Ms. Maria Grasso has become Massachusetts’ latest celebrity. Accepting a $70 million lump-sum check instead of annual payments, Grasso was able to quit her job as a nanny for a wealthy venture capitalist and his wife, and plans to use the money to help her family in America and in Chile, her homeland. All this is great news for her, but her record jackpot has been raising murmurs of discontent among some of the Massachusetts elite.

Robert Kuttner and Derrick Z. Jackson, two columnists for the Boston Globe, have been complaining about the lottery system in the wake of Grasso’s victory. They point out that in order for one person to win the lottery, many must lose; certainly there are a large number of people disappointed and jealous that they lost. Though the Globe columnists do not go so far, one might ask whether the dejection the losers feel outweighs the excitement beforehand, and whether the lottery should be dismantled because, on the whole, it makes people feel bad. But this is questionable -- presumably if the many lottery losers did not feel that “ ’tis better to have played and lost than never to have played at all,” they would not keep playing.

Another of the columnists’ complaints is that the lottery is “rigged for the rich,” because there is a direct and obvious relationship between a person’s degree of poverty and his or her purchase of lottery tickets. Poor people see the lottery as a way out of the slums, and spend a significant part of their income (up to about 8 percent in Chelsea, Mass., according to the Globe) on a nearly-impossible dream. Some lottery advertising even plays on this hope, persuading people that they, personally, will someday be saved from poverty. The “regressive” lottery system takes from the poor and returns little of it, Jackson says, concluding that the lottery is a tax, levied by a government which is “mean to the poor.” This is an interesting claim -- it’s a strange kind of tax which people pay entirely out of their own free will. Linking the lottery to the ever-expanding government welfare system, Jackson has the audacity to say that if we refuse to be so charitable that we bankrupt ourselves, we are being mean. This is a slap in the face for our society’s generosity in giving all kinds of free benefits to the needy.

Kuttner elaborates on the idea that the lottery is a way of denying justice to the poor: why, he wonders, don’t we guarantee the necessities of life to all Americans if we accept the idea of giving one person vast unearned wealth? Why do rich people get everything they need, when poor people do not? There are two answers. One is that rich people, by definition, can afford to buy more than poor people. The other is that, if we truly gave “to each according to his needs,” we would also have to take “from each according to his abilities,” with punishingly high taxes. The amount of welfare money drained from the rich to give to the poor is a function of politics. Kuttner and Jackson are trying to use the lottery to argue for an unrelated political cause, to make the non sequitor that because we allow a form of gambling, we have an obligation to give the poor everything they need.

But there is one valid argument against the state lottery system which the Globe columnists have missed. Massachusetts is trying to get funding for its own social-welfare system with a lottery which draws most of its profit from the very people it is intended to help -- a way of getting money for nothing. The system redistributes wealth from the poor to an array of government officials, who then return most of it. We are basically assuming that if we do not entice poor people to give money willingly to a system which will provide them with food, health care, and education, they will only waste their money on things like gambling instead of buying the things they need. We don’t really want to believe this, but can you imagine the howls of protest which would ensue if we scrapped the state lottery and, at the same time, cut funding for welfare programs by the same amount as the lottery takes in?

It might be helpful to step back and ask two questions: What do we want the lottery system to do? And is it doing so? We need to decide whether on the whole the lottery makes people happy and whether it provides any economic benefit. If we like what the system is accoplishing, we should keep the lottery; otherwise we should get rid of it.

One thing is more certain, however -- the odds are in favor of the system staying as it is.