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Shooting Craps for Social Programs

Ruth Miller

The word “gambling” conjures a number of negative images. Gambling has a rich history, full of ties to organized crime. Animal cruelty (horse and dog races, cock fighting) has united a lot of people against these so-called “sports.” There’s also the more annoying side of gambling, waiting behind a line of people buying lottery tickets at a gas station, which is less immoral, but detrimental nonetheless.

Overall, gambling seems to be pretty destructive. A few people may have the self-control necessary to stop, and a few more may have the skill necessary to succeed, but overall, gambling just preys on peoples’ weaknesses. Casinos and lotteries are no better than the tobacco industry. Plus, as Alan Keyes’ Web site will tell you, the vice of gambling is usually accompanied by prostitution and drinking. Few things are as immoral, yet as socially accepted, as gambling.

All this being said, gambling is really, really popular. Flashy lights, huge jackpots, and big crowds always accompany casinos and lotteries. Online gambling and the rising popularity of poker have brought gambling to a new echelon of availability and esteem. In fact, gambling is so popular that many states run their own lotteries. The notion of creating state-run casinos has even been raised.

Wait, this is more than just silent consent. How can the government sponsor such an immoral act? Additionally, because gambling is disproportionate to the lower socio-economic classes, isn’t the government targeting poorer families by making available so many opportunities to gamble?

That has got to be the most ridiculous argument ever made. Yes, the government is discriminating against you because you’re a compulsive gambler. It’s not your fault your welfare check (which the government gave you) is going into a state-run lottery. Nothing is ever your fault.

Back in the day, when Zell Miller was a Democrat, he started one of the finest programs ever established. He created the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship. The HOPE Scholarship covers the costs of post-secondary tuition, certain fees, and a stipend for books. What does it take to get HOPE? Every Georgia resident attending an in-state public college with a 3.0/4.0 GPA or better is awarded this scholarship.

Imagine: your family can’t afford to send you to college, so you keep up your grades, and the state pays for you to go to school. In Georgia, this scenario has been played out countless times since 1993 to the tune of $1.5 billion. Ninety-five percent of the current freshman class at the University of Georgia is on the HOPE Scholarship. These aren’t the legacies and trust fund kids receiving the scholarships; these are the people that are willing to work. The mean SAT score of accepted students rose from 1168 in 1992 to 1215 in 2002. Students have turned down Harvard to stay closer to home, and this enriches the academic program beyond quantitative measure. Colleges across the state have expanded and become more competitive, with no signs of stopping.

Where did this $1.5 billion come from? The Georgia lottery. The Georgia lottery also funds a pre-kindergarten program for all four-year-olds, as well as technological upgrades for schools, technical institutes, colleges, and universities across the state.

All this was funded by the so-called “poor tax” of a state-run lottery. The argument has been made repeatedly that this system unfairly taxes the poor, who comprise a disproportionately large portion of gamblers. What demographic do you think stands to benefit the most from programs such as HOPE? If a person would rather buy lottery tickets than save money for their own child’s post-secondary education, consider the lottery to be an investment account. The lottery is better than an investment account. No one is required to put money into it, but, if they’re willing to study, anyone can take money out of it.

Other states have similar common benefits tied to their lottery systems. Few states have a scholarship system similar to HOPE, or as my dad said when I turned down my last in-state school: “there’s no HOPE in Massachusetts.” Many states do have other public good programs. In the State of Massachusetts, 23 percent of the lottery ticket sales go directed to the Local Aid Fund, which sends money back to communities in need.

Now, to the issue of state-run casinos. Should the government condone gambling? It already does. How is allowing a private casino to operate any different than running one of your own? Judging by the assumption that private casinos are morally acceptable to the public, what makes a government casino any less moral? Does it really matter who’s behind the table?

Private casinos generate money for a few individuals, while a government casino would be generating revenue to help the very people playing poker and shooting craps. Is it right to condone gambling if the winnings go back to the people that lost them?