Shame on us. We give some of Maine’s poorest citizens a bit of financial help, then grab it right back by selling them lottery tickets. I wonder if this makes some people happy — “Well, we tried to help them, but they wasted that help by gambling. They should know better.” And of course, they gave the state back the money we gave them. We win!
Perhaps those poor folks saw our very exciting TV ads. Lucky for Life entices us with the possibility of winning $1,000 or $25,000 a day for life. They even turned to David Ortiz of the Red Sox for an ad, offering the possibility of winning more than money — you get to spend some time with Big Papi!
But the best TV ad is called Joker Mania, for a scratch game. “Play both sides of the ticket. You can win $100,000 instantly. More fun! More chances to win!”
Well, guess what. The joke is on you. A ton of gamblers have to lose in order for one to win.
We can no longer claim we didn’t know that the lottery preys on the poor. Dave Sherwood, writing for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, provided excellent reportage in this newspaper over the last few months, laying out the sobering details.
In Kennebunkport, a very wealthy area where fewer than 1 in 20 people receive food stamps, residents spend an average of just $6 a year on lottery tickets.
Some of you know that I have a deep connection to Lubec in Washington County. My mom grew up there and my great grandfather kept the light at West Quoddy for 32 years. I spent quite a bit of time there as a kid, and the town was booming with a busy main street including the large Unobsky’s department store.
Today, except for the months of July and August when tourists and summer residents are in town, Lubec is struggling. They lost their high school a few years ago, and last year even their nursing home closed. Not a single restaurant is able to stay open through the winter.
Today in Washington County, 1 in 5 residents receive food stamps, and lottery players in some towns spend as much as $1,313 annually on lottery tickets. You need to know that this matches the annual food stamp benefit of $1,249 per person.
As Sherwood reported, “Maine’s poorest towns spend as much as 200 times more per person on lottery tickets than those living in wealthier areas.” Shame on us.
Most stories call the folks who buy lottery tickets “players.” That’s not accurate. This is, most assuredly, not playing.
Legislators from both parties responded to Sherwood’s report by calling for a ban on lottery ticket purchases by people on public assistance. “This is one of the few areas of welfare reform that we could all agree on,” said Mario Moretto, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats. “It’s a no-brainer.” Sort of like buying lottery tickets, I guess.
Of course, we’ll keep right on enticing them with TV ads, but we’ll feel good that we’ve tried to stop them from giving us back the money we gave them. Lucky us!
And oh yeah, the lottery generates $50 million annually for the state’s General Fund, about 1.5 percent of the state’s total revenue.
But really, can we continue to do this with a clear conscience? Former state Sen. Peter Mills said it best, when he told Sherwood, “The state is drunk on the revenue. … The political backdrop is, no one cares about these people. They have no constituency. The fact that this money should be spent on groceries for their children doesn’t seem to matter.”
Isn’t it time to recognize how wrong it is to encourage Mainers to gamble away their money with false promises of getting rich? And end this deceitful fundraising scheme?
Let’s go back to Washington County, where Sherwood reported that Derrick Ray, the manager of Columbia’s 4-Corners Shop ‘n Save, “watches customers buy lottery tickets with mixed emotions … he knows the lottery is good for business. Last year, the store sold $237,000 worth of draw games and instant tickets or about $488 for every person in town. But Ray also sees some downsides.
“‘We must have 20-25 regulars who buy every day,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I feel bad selling those people tickets. I guess I shouldn’t. It’s their choice, right?'”
Ah, not really. But let’s not just shut the poor out of this ill-conceived and shameful way to raise revenue. Let’s shut down the state lottery and get our money the honest way — through taxes.