Imagine a small ATM in an old Food Mart just south of Carthage. Besides working people, senior citizens and those on disability stop by to withdraw limited amounts of their hard-earned cash to pay for overpriced medicines, cold Gatorade and hot fried chicken. This Food Mart stands in for a lot of North Carolina.
Now imagine a large man pulling up in a new Volvo and Armani suit with Georgia plates. He’ll take a stool next to the ATM and get in everyone’s face who swipes a debit card. He’s on the radio. He’s on TV. He’ll wave a photo of some awkwardly smiling children, who don’t look particularly happy, to be used in this way: “Hey! Wanna play a game for the kid scouts? Do ya?” That’s the State Education Lottery.
The man is inexplicably persuasive. On average, he’ll manage to lift three crisp, clean $100 bills from the calloused or wrinkled hands of every customer. Americans spend over $70 billion a year on lottery tickets — more than $300 per adult.
The largest portion of each bill our man will wad up and throw in a greasy paper bag. He’ll distribute this money in fistfuls, completely at random to other customers. Those are winnings, by law at least 50 percent.
The next largest portion, 35 percent, he’ll put in a fat manila envelope that he’ll mail to some bigshot friends of his in Raleigh. That’s the state legislature’s cut and it doesn’t have to go to education.
One of the smallest portions (no more than a third), he’ll put in a lock box marked “For the Kid Scouts,” really school districts, which he’ll send largely to troops in the city who have had to discontinue selling cookies because everyone knows this guy is extorting money in their name. Men and women in rural counties and those with fixed incomes pay far more per capita in lottery tickets than those in the rest of the state. So their “contributions” (and income) are effectively redistributed from their own children and school districts to richer, urban counties.
In most states that have passed a lottery, spending on education as a portion of the total budget has fallen off.
The final portion — always exactly 16 percent of the size of the overall bill — our guy will tuck neatly into his money clip for all his trouble and to pay his tab at the Men’s Wearhouse. He calls it “Ad-vuh-tising.” So does the NC state law.
How would a normally conscientious local paper describe such a man, such a situation? Would they question his motives or the motives of his insecure friends in Raleigh? Would they highlight the injustice of affluent school districts in places like Charlotte, Chapel Hill and Asheville receiving money at the expense of kids in Scotland, Robeson and Vance counties? Sadly no. The Pilot instead has chosen instead to parrot lottery industry press releases and run the story under the headline: “Winning Tickets: Moore Enjoying Its Share of Lottery Luck” on Aug. 18.
Joy for Moore?
The interpretation of the parable of the Carthage ATM is just a few google searches away. It unites those on the left and those on the right. Yet The Pilot spent most of its type on breathless descriptions of the lucky winners. No mention is made of the majority of us losers — those who pay for these short and often damaging windfalls — nor the gambling addicts or confused grandmothers throwing away their social security checks on the false hope of an umpteen million-dollar payoff. The opportunity costs of lottery tickets make every program we sponsor to care for the elderly and for children that much more expensive as their caregivers fritter away money on Power Ball instead of grandma’s scooter of junior’s asthma inhaler.
Those buying lottery tickets in Moore County are not getting lucky, guys. They are getting screwed. That fact deserves more than a token disclaimer.
Michael Hansen is a Seven Lakes resident.