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FIRST-PERSON: Why do people chase the illusion called the lottery?

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — Time magazine recently published a special money issue. Among the numerous articles aimed at helping readers manage their money was one titled “The 5 Things You Should Never Buy Again.”

Included in the five products or services that Time indicated a person should never, ever purchase was — are you ready for this? — lottery tickets. Yes, you read correctly, Time magazine has come to the conclusion that the lottery is a bad buy.

For the curious among you, the other purchases Time believes are a waste of money are: alternative flu remedies, unlimited cell phone minutes, bottled water and credit card payment insurance.

Time says the pitch when it comes to lottery tickets is “Win big! Never work again! Make your neighbors jealous!” However, according to the magazine, the odds of actually winning are astronomical.

“According to Powerball,” Time reports, “a player’s odds of winning the big one are 1 in 195,249,054. The odds of dying from a meteorite striking the earth are 1 in 700,000.”

While I appreciate Time’s take on the lottery, its report and advice is nothing new. If anything it is a little late. Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia operate government-sponsored lotteries.

Christian leaders and fiscal conservatives for years have pointed out the flaws of state-sponsored lotteries. Among the problems that have been pointed out is that the lottery disproportionally affects the poor.

A 2007 report by the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., found that the poor “spend more on lotteries as a percentage of their income.”

Additionally, the study reported the impact of lotteries on those in poverty “is further compounded when examining states that earmark lottery funds for education…. [L]ower-income individuals — the very people who are more likely to spend heavily on lotteries — are less likely to benefit from the earmarked proceeds because they are less likely to attend college.”

The Tax Foundation study showed that state-sponsored lotteries amount to nothing more than a regressive tax that disproportionately burden poor Americans.

Proponents of the lottery have countered the “hurts the poor” argument by asserting the gambling is voluntary. No one has to play.

While that argument has a ring of truth to it, it is disingenuous because in order for the lottery to be “successful,” people must play. As a result, the government advertises, markets and entices its citizens to participate.

In fact, the marketing directors of state-run lotteries have done such a good job of selling their “product” to low and middle income Americans that a majority believe they have a better chance of accumulating $500,000 by winning the lottery or sweepstakes than by saving and investing, according to a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and Primerica.

The same poll found that 45 percent of those with incomes of $15,000-25,000 say that the lottery — not saving and investing — is the “best chance to obtain half a million dollars or more in your lifetime.” Only 31 percent chose saving and investing.

In 1999, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission reported that players “with household incomes under $10,000 bet nearly three times as much on lotteries as those with incomes over $50,000.” It also found that the 51 percent of lottery tickets are bought by 5 percent of players.

Any marketing strategist worth his or her salt knows that the key to success is not in pushing a product, but rather in creating a concept, image or idea that a consumer can relate to. Lottery ad campaigns concentrate on selling a dream: The hope that in an instant a person can become financially set for life. A certain segment of the American population is swallowing this fantasy — hook, line and sinker.

Lottery opponents have long warned about the conceptual fruit government-sponsored gambling would produce. More than a decade ago, a group opposing a lottery in Texas — calling themselves “Texans Who Care” — distributed a report titled “The Lottery Fact Book.”

Included in the booklet was an item that conveyed the idea that state-run lotteries send the wrong message about success. It read: “State governments should not use their prestige, power and wealth to teach citizens the values of luck and chance as opposed to the values of hard work and planning. The government should not build false dreams and illusions in order that the state should profit. A society in need of hard work, discipline, saving, investment, and economic growth should not put its hope in a lottery.”

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have chosen to disregard the warning that state-run gambling bears rotten economic fruit. Instead, they shamelessly promote a get-rich-quick fantasy. The result: A significant number of Americans have resorted to economic daydreaming.

State governments from sea to shining sea now entice their citizens with the constant and never-ending refrain that “a lottery ticket a day could possibly keep future financial woes away.”

State-run lotteries have so successfully marketed the illusion of lottery success that many working-class Americans are willing to trust their financial futures to a game of chance rather than wise investing.

I appreciate Time’s advice never to buy a lottery ticket, I really do. However, I find the magazine’s message has come, as the old saying goes, a day late and a dollar short.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs