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Disturbing Facts About State Lotteries: They Prey on the Poor and Trash the Economy, and Political Leaders Don't Care (Hard Times USA)

State lotteries do far more harm than good, especially at the bottom of the economic ladder.

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The following article is part of AlterNet's series on poverty, Hard Times USA.

State lotteries amount to a hidden tax on the poor. They eat up about 9 percent of take-home incomes from households making less than $13,000 a year. They siphon $50 billion a year away from local businesses—besides stores where they’re sold. And they are encouraged by state-sponsored ads suggesting everyone can win, win, win!

State lotteries, which once were illegal, now exist in most states. What many people don’t know about lotteries is that they prey on those who can least afford it; most people never win anything big; and 11 states raise more money from lotteries than from corporate taxes. Beyond the moral, mental health or religious debates over gambling, lotteries are another example of how society preys on the poor and the working-class.

Let’s look at why state lotteries do far more harm than good—especially at the bottom of the economic ladder.

1. Legalized gambling is almost everywhere. Legalized gambling is available in every state except for Utah and Hawaii. This includes state lotteries, which are in 42 states, Puerto Rico and Washington DC. Lotteries were illegal for most of the 20th century, but that changed in 1964 when New Hampshire—a state without an income tax— reinstituted a state lottery. The first lotteries predate the American Revolution, but those mostly privately run efforts were so corrupt they were completely prohibited by every state in 1894.

2. They suck billions out of the economy. In 2009, $50.4 billon was spent on state lottery tickets and video kiosks. The government pocketed $17.9 billion of this total in 2010, which breaks down to 30 percent in profits and 8 percent in administrative costs, including advertising. The rest went to prizes and commissions to stores selling the tickets. Many corner stores could not remain open without the income from lottery sales. 

3. They are a tax from anti-tax politicans. Tax-averse Democrats and Republicans have increasingly been relying on state lotteries to subsidize basic public programs like schools instead of raising taxes for that purpose. In 11 states—Delaware, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Oregon, South Dakota, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Washington—the lottery raised more per person than corporate income taxes. “The long-term shift in tax burdens from capital and corporations to individuals and their activities is perhaps best illustrated by the rise of state lotteries,” wrote tax expert David Cay Johnston, calling lotteries “the most heavily taxed consumer product in America.”

4. They hit the poorest the hardest. “Simply put, lotteries take the most from those who can least afford it,” wrote economist Richard Wolff. “Instead of taking those most able to pay (the principle of federal income tax in the U.S.), state leaders use lotteries to disguise a regressive tax that falls on the middle and even more on the poor.” A 2010 study found that households with take-home incomes of less than $13,000 spent on average $645 a year on lottery tickets, which is about 9 percent of their income. The reason people play lotteries varies, but it mixes hopes and dreams with desperation: poorer people see it as a slim chance to radically improve their standard of living.

5. Communities of color, less-educated spend the most. Numerous academic studies have found that non-whites spend much more on lotteries than whites, with one study putting the figure at $998 for African Americans and $210 for whites. Household with incomes under $25,000 spent an average of about $600 a year, while $100,000-plus earners spent about $300 year. People who never graduated from college spent the most, about $700 a year, while graduates spent under $200.