Lottery’s free lunch. Guess who’s buying?

By WILLIAM JEANS,

Is Mississippi still the Buckle of the Bible Belt? Step by step we’ve legalized most ways to drink, excepting moonshine, and with the coming of the state lottery, we’ve legalized most available ways to gamble. I say our buckle is at best tarnished.

Is the new state lottery a good thing? Not really. It may not be altogether bad, and it may raise some infrastructure money, but it has a downside. All lotteries do. So do all forms of legalized gambling.

When my wife and I moved permanently to the Gulf Coast in 2000, legalized casino gambling had been around for a decade. On prior sporadic escapes from Michigan winters, we had seen the Coast still struggling, as it had since 1969, to overcome the effects of Hurricane Camille.

 The casinos brought positive change —things as simple as houses with fresh coats of paint, a spirit of optimism, rising property values. The casinos prospered and contributed to Mississippi’s economy. But there was more to the story.

 The first hole I saw in the casino doughnut was at a Gulfport furniture store in 2001. The owner chanced to be working the floor, and we talked about business. He said that the casinos had hurt his income. I knew that casinos didn’t sell furniture, so I asked him to elaborate.

“They lose their money in the casinos,” he said. “Every dollar lost in a casino is a dollar stripped from the Coast’s disposable income pool.” I got it. It’s one thing to snatch money from tourists, a time-honored activity all over the globe, but it’s another to watch your own customers lose money. 

If folks from Louisiana and Alabama and Tennessee and Florida want to indulge in futile attempts to beat the house, fine. Let furniture stores in Slidell, Mobile, and Tallahassee take the hit. Not our problem, right? But local populations have finite incomes. They can spend that income on goods and services, or they can risk it by gambling. If the money’s lost, it’s gone for good.

In the late 1960s, I lived in Nassau. The Bahamas government allowed a big casino operation on Paradise Island, but Bahamians — and residents like me — couldn’t gamble there. Which seemed odd at the time, but it seemed less so viewed 30 years later through the lens of a Gulfport furniture-store owner.

If local individuals lose their money, local businesses don’t have a chance at getting it, do they? Not rocket surgery, is it?

So it is with the lottery. Any lottery. Those campaigning for the Mississippi lottery lamented the outflow of Mississippi money to Arkansas and Louisiana lotteries. They said that carloads of Magnolia Staters were gambling away their money on those lotteries because they had no opportunity to lose it here at home.

 

The lottery boosters had a point. But here are one or two other points that did not often surface during the discussion. First, poor people — a natural resource Mississippi has in abundance — are more likely to play the lottery than affluent people. Second, less educated citizens buy more lottery tickets than the better educated.

Professor Phillip J. Cook of Duke University, in “Selling Hope,” his excellent book on state lotteries, puts it thus: “Nationally, households earning less than $25,000 annually laid out $600 each year on lottery tickets. Those with $100,000-plus incomes spent $289. College dropouts blew $700 a year on lottery tickets, while persons with degrees spent $179.”

Lottery payouts (money paid to winning ticket holders as a percentage of income from ticket sales) can be as high as 71 percent (e.g., Arkansas) and as low as 15 percent (Delaware and South Dakota). The payout average at a typical casino hovers around 90 percent.

That would lead one to believe that buying a lottery ticket is the giant lollipop of all sucker bets. One would be correct. A Powerball ticket buyer in a recent lottery event faced odds of 292 million to one. The odds are better on opening the door to the smallest room in your house and finding the Queen of England sitting there.

Census figures show that almost 600,000 of Mississippi’s 3,000,000 citizens live in poverty. Other sources tell us that almost seven in 10 public school students are eligible for free lunches. And that our median household income is $41,754.

If you believe Professor Cook’s assertions, you just might conclude that Mississippi is running over with potential lottery-ticket buyers. What could possibly go wrong?

William Jeanes is a Northsider.

 

 

He lives in Dinsmoor.

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