The lottery: The cost of hope, a tax on the poor

When it comes to giving and charity, one of the main objections you hear of giving to homeless people is that it is a “waste of money.” They might buy alcohol and cigarettes instead of doing something “useful” or “feeding their family” with that dollar bill you handed them. This presumes the poor possess an array of choices that rarely exist when you are brought low enough to beg for food on the street. 

Growing up I heard these same criticisms, but with a slight twist, as they concerned purchasing lottery tickets. In a small, poverty-stricken town of fewer than 300 people, with the next closest town barely better off with a population of 5,000, playing the lottery was a weekly gamble many residents took.

When at the gas station, where many purchased these tickets, I regularly heard from my mother that the lottery was a waste of money. She knew of a poor woman who bought a ticket every week, had invested thousands of dollars over the years, but never won. This was the objection — after all, the money would have been better used in savings.

I believed these things entirely until my husband lost his job, and felt the weight of how the dollar means so much to people.

The almighty dollar

Under capitalism, the only way to survive is with money, especially in the ruthless hyper-capitalism of the United States. You need enough money to pay for housing, transportation, maintenance, food, everything.

You want to pick up a hobby? Better have money. Want to start a business? Money.

So why is it that those who can barely scrape up a dollar to buy a frozen pizza might invest a dollar in an almost certain loss of the lottery ticket?

Hope. Someone has to win, right?

The lottery is advertised across the nation as funding education. In 2020, $336 million worth of lottery funds were designated for my home state of Missouri’s public education.

It is common to enter the voting booth and come across some new initiative to vote on how much to tax lottery winnings. But the lottery itself truly is a tax on the middle and working class. Among those making less than $36,000 per year, 40% buy lottery tickets. Among those making $36,000-89,999, 56% buy lottery tickets and among those making over $90,000, 53% buy tickets. 

In the whole of the United States, 25.4% of the population makes less than $35,000 per year. As people know, $35,000 per year means something very different depending on the state and city where you live. In some places in Missouri or Mississippi $35,000 is little, but it may be enough to support yourself and one other. However, in many places in New York or California, you could be homeless on the same sum.

Now, why does this matter?

Why does it matter who buys lottery tickets? Or that the tickets are used for public education? Public education being funded through something like gambling misplaces the responsibility of the funding of our schools from the government to individuals. The schools should be guaranteed adequate funds.

This also removes the pressure to actually extract the necessary funding from corporations and the top 1% of earners, where the burden should fall.

What other crucial service is funded in such an unstable and fluctuating manner? Would the Pentagon find it acceptable for the defense budget to be funded in this way? Of course not, the military comes first in the federal budget and members of Congress never complain about military spending.

For example, in Missouri, special education in 2020 was 33% funded by the lottery system. How is it acceptable that our already underfunded education system is being funded by those who are desperate to make ends meet, desperate to get lucky?

There could be some excuse for this if our education system was one that flourished, yet it does not. Instead, students under-perform and teachers toil beyond reasonable hours, often acting not only as teachers but also as surrogate parents in a society that forgets and neglects its children.

Yet some reactionaries complain about schools stretching their funds to provide breakfasts for their often hungry children!

In special education it can be even worse, with horror stories of staffing so low that teachers cannot get coverage to take bathroom breaks over their entire shifts from 8 a.m. to 4-or-5 p.m. This is the price of our schools depending on the lottery system for significant funding.

Capitalism often justifies itself by creating rags-to-riches stories. Trying to make those trapped in a ruthless system feel as though someday a lottery win will be their story. Perhaps they can be the one to ascend into the clouds on their magic carpet made with hundred dollar bills!

Maybe someday they will be the ones to create some brand new company fulfilling some function none other does. Perhaps someday they will be the next Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, ignoring the reality that these wealthy men today did not do anything by themselves.

The truth is that most of the wealthy have inherited their wealth. This is what allows the already rich enormous power to create more wealth. These are the people who have the ear of our politicians, allowing these capitalists to not only get away with not paying taxes, but ultimately receiving tax money for bringing their businesses into certain select cities. 

The lottery preys upon the hopes of those who might not know the reality of the rich, but know their own reality. Lower-income people understand that they will not have access to the resources to pursue some scheme, some new invention, and that they are trapped in jobs that will do not give them room to breathe or room to maybe even to retire in the years to come.

They buy a ticket hoping that they will win, perhaps enough to pay off their student loans, their mortgage, their medical bills, maybe provide some sort of safety net, or even just allow them to take a vacation for once.

The lottery is a tax on the poor people of America hoping to break free. The system purports to be helping them while only selling them false hope. All the while they are chained even tighter in a country that cannot be bothered to tax the rich.

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